What better way to celebrate America in the midst of moral decay? What better offering than a paean to the quest for independence, human dignity, the chance for actual freedom? Meet “Girls of the Golden West,” John Adam’s brand new opera, given its world premiere last night in San Francisco. A collaboration with the renowned artist and visionary, Peter Sellars, librettist and director, SFO brought the new work to a sold-out house, under the baton of Grant Gershon and with a cast of imaginative young singers. To celebrate Adams’s 70th birthday, and Adams’s contribution to American contemporary music, Matthew Shlivlock presented the composer with the SFO Gold Medal at the end of the performance.
It was truly a magical evening.
The story is the result of a culling of documents and texts ranging from letters of Dame Shirley, a.k.a., Louise Clapp, v. SFPLibrary’s Documents’ Division, to Mark Twain’s “Roughing It.” The title is partly lifted from Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” and the work itself is less of a dramatic than narrative excursion into the world of the Gold Rush in 1849, when California was still Mexico. We crossed its border, we were reminded, not the other way around. It’s a time when women were in danger of enjoying freedom, rather than the other way around. It was a time when greed, violence, and hypocrisy lived out its destiny. Adams’s music maps the textures of this world it mirrors. As with his other works, “Dr. Atomic,” on the maker of the atomic bomb, for example, Adams uses the sublime form of opera to address our human and cultural dimension and creates a very good and penetrating marriage.
Gershon, in his San Francisco debut, led the 67-piece orchestra with energy, aplomb and fervor; instead of accompanying the singers, he led them, and us. Woodblocks and bells, full and rich brass alternated in a wide range of rhythm and syncopations. When the Chorus added itself, with its intriguing refrains and repetitions, we were lifted with the score’s excitement and celebrated the multi-national, multi-cultural brocade that is America. We are here; we will never go away. And why should we?
The two acts with five scenes each detail the story of the Gold Rush and its environs. While not “Deadwood,” the cable TV show, nor Puccini’s colorful “La Fanciulla,” “Girls” introduces similar locales such as the Gambling hall, the Bar, the woods and mountains, the bedroom. If anything, some of that detail could be sacrificed, particularly since, in Act one, Sellars and Adams told us little new. In fact, small details such as the suspended covered wagon, more than aptly dramatized by Ned Peerless Peters and Dame Shirley jogging and rocking on land in an imaginary one, needed no visual accompaniment, especially when, after it was all over, the wagon literally descended on stage, only to rise again and disappear for good. The same went for the made-up mule Dame Shirley dragged into the first act for no substantive reason. The audience wasn’t sure whether this was a lark or serious gesture. Where were we going – into the comic? Into the stark? Into the symbolic? Act one was, in fact, a carefully-designed throw-together of place and time and people – their stories told, often in elaborate detail. We learn of Ah Sing being sold by her mother for seven dollars, but worth $700 at the end; we hear of Josefa’s first rendezvous with Ramon and Dame Shirley’s clunky relationship with the sewn-up tight husband who the opera weaves in and out like a thread that has lost all elasticity. With courtesy, we still want to say – Make up your mind, Folks – are we for the Real?
We have muted costumes for the chorus, welcome shades of color for the soloists, rich use of the whole stage, down and up, and side to side. If anything, fewer moving objects, suspensions and disappearances would have been welcome. It’s hard to get deeper into story when things are constantly in motion, especially if gratuitous. It might make sense to illustrate the tumult of the times, but to fulfill the function of getting inside the situation, less might have been more.
Getting to Know the “Girls”
Act two fared much better: a through-line that had dramatic punch on an official day: the Fourth of July. Instead of just a quasi-plot, we have the spliced trio of stories of the titular girls themselves – and from the women’s rather than the men’s points of view. We got to know Josefa, played by mezzo J’Nai Bridges with a lustrous and soulful solitude, in the midst of all the feverish byplay. Ah Sing was played by Korean Soprano Hye Jung Lee, with deft, piquante daintiness and vocal swell. And Julia Bullock, Dame Shirley, was narrator and actor in a quasi-Wilder, “Our Town” flavor, with full, resonant and richly appealing voice. She carries the narrative throughout with grace and presence, a job that is more than Herculean. The girls show us both their struggles in their dust-laden, mud-filled world, but how to hold themselves accountable despite its injustice and violence.
…And the Boys
Tenor Paul Appleby plays Joe Cannon, the balladeer and runaround, with panache while bass-baritone Ryan McKinny takes Clarence, baritone Elliot Madore interprets the mournful Ramon with tender sincerity, and baritone Davone Tines plays the handsome Ned Peerless Peters, who lifts the story of slavery into the dimension of significance it deserves. Peters links the lively and lightweight with the significance of his story easily and with depth.
In fact, while each character conveys her/his individual story, together the cast is a musical, social and human ensemble. Together they provide us with a Greek chorus of commentary on what the opera aims at. The actual Chorus, under Ian Roberston’s direction, shines in their detailed gestures and robust singing.
Back to the Drawing Board?
Ultimately, however, one might imagine that it is back to the drawing board for some editing, specifically back to the human discussion for some cuts to dramatize the duets and some of the dialogue – one particular trio of Joe Cannon, Ah Sing, and Clarence invites a correlation with a Pieta and so heightens the intensity of the ties between new world and old; such lyricism like this would strengthen the emotional reach of the opera, along with its historical exploration.
We can imagine the opera in one act, still chock full but without the excrescences already known about our wild west heritage; we can imagine the stories of Josefa, Ah Sing, Dame Shirley sculpted out with more power, and with less extras. More would have been welcome for how Dame Shirley got to the West and why, the descriptions of Native Americans which actually never amounted to more than allusion and an exquisitely moving black and white projection “cum” story told about the friendly openness of a native girl, a tip of the hat to genocide. More insight into these would have provided us with a more cohesive and immersive operatic experience. That is the major issue with Act one – who should we care about? With Act two, we enter lives, not ideas of lives, not stories of stories of lives, and thus are moved and full of care that this went on on our watch.
But it must be said that there is no need for the drawing board when it comes to the intention, the vision, the boost in essential reminders that America, its West, its riot of runaways and freedom-seeking strangers who come together in a New World, even today, is endangered by the lawless, corrosive tenets of what has always threatens its people.