By Richard S. Ginell
SAN FRANCISCO — If there is one thing that John Adams and his constant co-conspirator Peter Sellars are experts at, it is getting our attention. The provocative title of their newest collaboration, Girls of the Golden West, certainly did that, raising eyebrows and questions in opera circles well before its world premiere at San Francisco Opera’s appropriately gilded War Memorial Opera House on Nov. 21.
Is it a rewrite of the famous Puccini opera of virtually the identical name? Is it a parody of same? Or does it have nothing to do with it? The answers are: None of the above.
What Girls of the Golden West attempts to do is offer an alternative to Puccini’s spaghetti Western by setting the historical record straight. Adams and Sellars open a window upon the dark side of the California Gold Rush of the 1850s — the greed, the racism, the violence, the despoiling of the Gold Country in the Sierra Nevada.
If there is any resemblance to present-day problems, it is not a coincidence. The two creators have not been shy to point out similarities between the issues raised in their story and the rise of Silicon Valley just down the peninsula, the unleashing of bigotries hidden from general view before the 2016 election, or the dangers of man-made global warming. If, for instance, you want to believe that these rambling, gambling, seat-of-the-pants gold prospectors are the ancestors of today’s creators of overvalued tech companies, Adams and Sellars won’t stop you.
Ultimately, the Sellars agenda of support for underdogs, particularly if they happen to be in minority ethnic groups, is in our faces again. For Adams, the mission is also personal, since he has a cabin in the Gold Country just up the road from the scene of his opera.
The new opera, Adams’ fifth overall, seems to operate like a two-movement Lutosławski symphony, with the first part merely setting the table for the second part. Act I is a seemingly scattershot collage of incidents in the camp of Rich Bar circa 1851, while Act II in the Gold Country town of Downieville finally propels the plot forward.
As has often been the case recently, Sellars’ libretto is a patchwork of this and that culled from found sources. If there is one dominant source, it is the letters of Louise Clappe, a writer who, under the nom de plume of Dame Shirley, chronicled the lifestyles and times she witnessed while living in the miner camps for a couple of years in the early 1850s. Dame Shirley becomes what amounts to a journalistic character in this opera, always observing with a keen eye and a completely open mind, and quoted virtually verbatim in stretches of the libretto.
The opera is strewn with characters and incidents drawn with the historical record and the Sellars agenda in mind. A fugitive slave turned cowboy, Ned Peters, turns out to be a noble character with an intellectual bent. Although the libretto does not spell it out, Sellars’ direction indicates that Dame Shirley and Ned have a thing for each other in violation of every taboo of the period, not to mention the fact that she is already married, albeit unhappily. Joe Cannon is a miner who has just been dumped by his fiancée back in Missouri; whatever compassion we feel for him disappears when he turns out to be a nasty drunk. He consorts with an upwardly-mobile Chinese prostitute, Ah Sing, who wants him, but his own feelings toward her come and go.
Joe’s friend Clarence is a virile fellow miner who seems to play an ambiguous role, sometimes defusing and sometimes exacerbating racial tensions. There is a Mexican couple, Ramón and Josefa. He deals cards at the Empire Hotel bar, she entices the customers. A real-life historical figure, the notorious dancer Lola Montez, suddenly shows up in Act II for no other reason, it seems, than to give Adams a chance to write his own short “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which he does in a spiky manner with flippant winds and brash brasses.
Adams’ music had been growing ever more dense and intricate since El Niño, but in Girls, he strips away some of the complexities of texture, particularly in Act I. He comes up with his own engaging idea of what a Wild West ballad would sound like under the influence of Stravinsky, and in a bar song for Joe Cannon, Adams filters a tough Kurt Weill/Berlin sound through his own lens with a jazzy sway. Through most of Act I, Adams’ score is one of continued fascination from scene to disconnected scene, although interest flags in the waning minutes of the last scene.
In Act II, Adams responds more viscerally to the increasingly violent action, recalling the angst of his score for Doctor Atomic. He doesn’t give expression to his fondness for his home away from home until the Epilogue, creating quietly dissonant, cosmic layers of sound underneath Dame Shirley’s paean to the California landscape, now littered with miners’ debris.
On a first listen, two definite peaks of inspiration stand out. One is the jagged music for the impassioned monologue Ned gives on what the Fourth of July means to him as an African-American in a white man’s country. Bottom line, he is not thrilled. (At the pre-opera talk, Sellars suggested that this aria should be performed alongside Copland’s Lincoln Portrait at Fourth of July concerts. Don’t bet on it.) The other is the chorus of angry, vengeful miners out to lynch Josefa for the self-defense killing of Joe Cannon, ganging up on an outsider with a fervor and hatred worthy of the hectoring townspeople in Act III of Britten’s Peter Grimes. Indeed, the hard-hitting choral writing throughout the opera is one of its strongest points.
Yet overall, despite the novel musical departures of Act I and the powerful passages later on, the opera strikes me as being in need of some trimming; Act I clocks in at 77 minutes and Act II at over 92, a long sit. A good pruning wouldn’t be unprecedented for an Adams/Sellars work after the world premiere. The Gospel According to the Other Mary underwent some trims in between productions in Los Angeles and was the better for it — and judging from an early synopsis, some cutting from Girls was already done (e.g., a chorus where the mob describes a massacre of local Indians was apparently dropped from Act I). As it was, there were walkouts from the packed opera house after intermission.
David Gropman’s sets in Act I consisted mostly of a few wide streamers hanging from the ceiling and a hotel bar with anachronistic neon signs (neon lighting wasn’t invented until 1902), with the wings of the theater left exposed to the audience’s view. Act II took place mainly on the severed trunk of a felled giant redwood tree (an obvious symbol of the plundering of the environment) upon which Lola danced and Ned delivered his screed on the mount. Sellars often placed the chorus in positions familiar from past productions — working stiffs in poses.
With his experience in powering the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon was a great choice to conduct an opera filled with choruses, and he did so with rhythmic buoyancy and vigor, mouthing the words as he led each choral number. The cast was young and uniformly strong, sporting excellent diction. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who did an uncanny physical impression of Richard Nixon in Nixon In China in L.A. last March, was especially clear in diction as Clarence.
Davóne Tines, the owner of a superb, robust bass-baritone, sang his soul out in Ned’s Fourth Of July oration, the most emotionally moving vocal performance of the evening. Soprano Julia Bullock, another rising star, was a thoughtful, mostly composed, at times touching Dame Shirley. Tenor Paul Appleby exuded rough youthful vitality as Joe Cannon. Soprano Hye Jung Lee trilled high in her register as Ah Sing.
Baritone Elliot Madore and mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges were in fine form as Ramón and Josefa respectively, and Cuban dancer Lorena Feijóo performed Lola Montez’s “Spider Dance” in a red,white, and blue skirt. In a display of ensemble egalitarianism, everyone took their curtain call together.
Girls of the Golden West now settles in for a late-fall run at San Francisco Opera with performances scheduled Nov. 24-Dec. 10. The co-commissioning Dallas Opera is planning to produce it in their 2020-21 season.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.