LOS ANGELES — Back in November 2017, John Adams’ Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West had its world premiere in San Francisco, roughly 190 miles southwest via I-80 and State Route 49 from the town of Downieville, where Act II takes place. Having seen the performance, I wrote that it had some powerful moments and novel departures from Adams’ increasingly complex musical language but that the opera could use some trimming. Others made the last observation as well — and ultimately Adams agreed.
So he set to work. There was a revised version that the Dutch National Opera staged in Amsterdam in February 2019, and Adams was scheduled to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in two concert performances in February 2021 with all but one member of the original San Francisco Opera cast. The LA Phil performances, of course, were scotched by the pandemic shutdown and eventually re-scheduled for January 2023, by which time Adams had made still more cuts and revisions. This is typical Adams policy for his theatrical works, and they are usually better off as a result.
Thus, the short Los Angeles run of Girls of the Golden West Jan. 27 and 29 in Walt Disney Concert Hall is really the third world premiere, and this version (seen on Jan. 29) may be the keeper since Nonesuch — which has been faithfully chronicling Adams’ music since the mid-1980s — was recording it. True to the composer’s word, it is considerably trimmed down. In San Francisco, the two-act opera clocked in at 169 minutes (77 for Act I and 92 for Act II), while in Los Angeles, it was a mere 127 minutes (59 for Act I, 68 for Act II). That’s a lot of material to lose, but I don’t miss most of the cuts.
But first, let’s retrace our steps and outline the premise of the opera, which, to be clear, bears no musical, plot-related, or satirical relation to the Puccini opera of nearly the same name. Adams and his collaborator Peter Sellars (who apparently played no part in this revision) intended to explore the dark underbelly of the California Gold Rush circa 1851, patching together a libretto using the first-hand memoirs of Louise Smith Clappe (writing under the nom de plume Dame Shirley) and other period sources.
The idea was to chronicle the out-of-control greed, misogyny, and racism of the original 49ers, along with the indifference to the despoilment of the beautiful environment of the Sierras — with present-day allegories implied. Act I was originally a series of disconnected scenes from the then-bustling mining town of Rich Bar in the Sierras, while Act II in Downieville propelled the plot lines forward.
The results of this revision are certainly tighter dramatically, and the jagged, rhythmically displaced energy of the front end of the Act I score isn’t dissipated quite as much by the back end of the act. Act I originally ended with a serene duet for Dame Shirley and her driver Ned Peters, a Black, escaped slave-turned-cowboy with an intellectual bent. By this time, fatigue had been setting in for this listener at the SFO premiere, and several folks left the theater during intermission. That duet was cut, and in its place, Adams wrote a new rousing finale in which a mob of angry miners is being organized for a revenge massacre of Indians. He wrote the words himself, name-checking a laundry list of colorfully monikered mining camps and towns like You Bet (which still exists), Red Dog, and Bed Bug. The effect is now an abrupt jolt of raw hostility laced with white supremacy (I suspect Adams may have been channeling recent political currents), and it prepares us better for the violence to come in Act II.
Gone is the Spider Dance for the historical character Lola Montez, which struck me as an expendable bit of orchestral grandstanding that needlessly prolonged Act II. Also gone, I think, was an attempt to write a Wild West-styled duet for Dame Shirley and Ned in the manner of Stravinsky in Act I, but Adams keeps Joe Cannon’s subsequent barroom song with its jazzy swagger of Berlin-period Kurt Weill as filtered through Adams’ own prism. (Indeed, a woman at the pre-concert Q&A session pointed out a possible kinship between this opera and Weill/Brecht’s The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. In terms of the themes of greed, inhumanity, and amorality among adventurers seeking their fortunes, the shoe fits, but Brecht’s cynicism is quite different from the humanistic Adams/Sellars agenda.)
This was a bare-bones concert performance, with no attempts at acting or stage movement. The seven cast members — the same ones who were listed for the canceled 2021 performances — were rooted to their music stands in back of the orchestra, no doubt by necessity since they were being recorded. The LA Phil tried to help things along by giving short outlines of each scene via the supertitles, and of course it was advantageous to hear the cascade of eclectic details in this score, as incisively led by its composer, on a concert stage instead of in a pit.
Yet in this concert version, with the characters often speaking in the third person — particularly in Act I — we do feel somewhat removed from the emotional pull of the developing story line and the resonances for today. One of the high points in the score — Ned’s big Act II protest song, based almost verbatim upon Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July oration from 1852 — made a more dramatic impact in the opera house, where he delivered it from the stump of a giant redwood tree that had been felled by the miners. Overall, it felt more like oratorio than opera.
The excellent cast from the original production repeated their performances — soprano Julia Bullock in thoughtful, shining voice as Dame Shirley, bass-baritone Davóne Tines stirring and indignant in Ned’s Douglass oration, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny just as resonant in the ambiguously drawn role of Clarence King, lyric soprano Hye Jung Lee hitting gorgeous high notes as the upwardly mobile hooker Ah Sing, tenor Paul Appleby’s Southern-accented turn as drunken Joe Cannon, and the sturdy baritone Elliot Madore as the card dealer Ramón. The sole new face in the cast was mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, singing in English and Spanish with vibrating chest tones as the martyred barmaid Josefa Segovia. Twenty-eight male singers from the Los Angeles Master Chorale radiated joy, frustration, and menace in their rants.
As in his latest opera, Antony and Cleopatra, and for that matter in most of his theater work, Adams saves his best, most personal music for last, here a visionary Epilogue evoking the magical atmosphere of a damaged yet still predominantly pristine Sierra wilderness, flowing along in a harmonic haze without any need for added sentiment. Since Adams’ composing cabin is not far from the two locales in Girls, no wonder he feels so close to the work, coming back to it again and again to in a determined effort to get it right. But we’ll have to see a full production to confirm whether this version is the one that does.