Opera Forward Festival Review 2019: Girls of the Golden West

A Tremendously Rich Cast & Strong Direction From Peter Sellars Brings John Adams’ Vibrant Score to Life

By Alan Neilson

The 1848 Californian gold rush has an almost mythical place in American cultural history, with its associations of lucky strikes and the pioneering spirit, as well as more negative connotations of lawlessness, hard toil and poverty for those who were not so lucky. It has spawned Hollywood films, documentaries, books and songs, while opera-goers are also likely to associate it with Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West.” Most, as is certainly the case with Puccini’s opera, take a romanticized and sentimental view of the gold rush, usually with the good guy eventually coming out on top, striking it lucky against the odds, and winning the girl.

John Adams’ opera, “Girls of the Golden West” approaches the subject from a very difficult angle. There is no trace of sentimentality in this work, it is a vicious portrayal of brutality, greed, misogyny and racism, which seeks to depict the reality of what was essentially an all male environment.

No Romanticism

It was Adams’ long-term collaborator, Peter Sellars, who came up with the idea of making an opera about the gold rush, and who also took responsibility for creating the libretto. Having already rejected an offer to direct Puccini’s opera on the subject, presumably considering it superficial and politically at odds with his outlook, Sellars created a libretto populated by a more diverse range of characters drawn from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Mexican, Chilean, Chinese and Black Americans, inserting them into what was a predominantly white male mining community.

The girls of the title have little in common with Puccini’s Minnie, but reflect the comparatively small number of women, made up of wives, prostitutes, entertainers, barmaids and others searching for a new life who decided to embark on a journey into this wild, all male environment. It is, in effect, a reflection of America’s current obsession with identity politics, of its need to expose its own historical, (and current), maltreatment of minority groups, and its need to purge its collective soul and seek forgiveness.

The problem, of course, is that such overt politically heavy-handed posturing makes it more difficult to create good drama. For the most part, however, Sellars managed to weave the political undercurrents of “Girls of the Golden West” into the fabric of the narrative, without compromising the dramatic integrity of the work. Thus, at the close of Act one when Joe and Clarence brag about killing “bucks” and “squaws” at “$5 a head,” it draws attention to the extermination policy directed towards Native Americans, and casts a dark shadow over the upright “pioneering spirit,” but at the same time it sharpens characterization, and provides a meaningful context to the brutality and hardships of life in the mining camps.

Even Ned’s powerful aria, “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine” in which he describes his feelings about the treatment of his fellow black Americans, and the injustices they suffer, is integrated seamlessly and convincingly, without any sense that Sellars is using it to preach to the audience, although its message is abundantly clear.

Too Much Black & White, Cut & Paste

On the other hand, Sellars, divides his characters into the unambiguously good and the unambiguously bad: the white males are shown to be flawed, and to a man, indulge in acts of misogyny and racist violence and abuse; women and ethnic minorities are uniformly virtuous and victims of their violence. There is little attempt to explore differences within the groups, or sufficient attention given to distinguishing individuality through anomalous behavior, the one exception being Clarence, who is aware of his underlying guilt and the injustices within the community.

Overall, however, the characters were too crudely divided, with identity being the deciding criterion, and as such weakened its dramatic integrity, as well as the force of the political argument. A little blurring of the moral positions of the characters within their group would have helped.

Sellars is fond of using a cut and paste approach in creating libretti, bringing together verses and lines from poems, passages from speeches, diaries, newspapers reports, religious tracts and novels and arranging them into a narrative. It is far from clear, however, that posterity will look kindly on his efforts.

He has been successful when applying this technique to the libretti of Adams’ oratorios, however, it is far more difficult to apply successfully in the case of an opera, where communication between characters needs to be more direct, and with a greater degree of flexibility and urgency. Certainly, some of the passages Sellars selected for “Girls of the Golden West” were well-chosen and appropriate to the dramatic situation, and occasional scenes were elevated by using the words of gifted wordsmiths, such as Mark Twain and Frederick Douglass, but too often the dialogue felt contrived and failed to convince.

Alice Goodman’s libretti for Adams’ early operas “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer” are so much more satisfying.

Better Direction

It also fell to Sellars to direct the opera for Amsterdam’s Opera Forward Festival. Sellars’ talents in directing opera, however, are less controversial; regardless of what one may think of his interpretations, they always possess an interesting vision, with incisive insights into its underlying dynamics, and he is especially skillful in helping actors develop their characters.

The world he created in the Californian settlement of Rich Bar, was an oppressive and degrading environment for everyone, and physically dangerous for minorities. The miners, when not prospecting, passed their time gambling, whoring and indulging in violent episodes which did not stop short of killing innocents. Sellars effective direction used the miners as an ever present mob, who crowded their victims. In the final scene, a dignified Josefa, having killed Joe in self-defense, is surrounded by the miners who want her dead; they move closer and closer into her personal space, their singing increasingly aggressive, their behavior increasingly menacing.

The juxtaposing of realistic elements alongside the stylized choreographing of the scene created a visually powerful and dramatically strong confrontation. His highlighting of the salient moments were cleverly constructed. Ned’s aria, “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine” was given the prominence it deserved; standing on a raised platform (actually a stump of a Giant Redwood tree) on a dark stage, he sang in the spotlight, the sole focus of attention.

Sellars also expertly developed the atmosphere within scenes, for example, capturing the terror experienced by women and non-white men, who were often found in pairs, Ned and Dame Shirley or Ramon and Josefa, cowering in isolation, hoping the rampaging miners did not notice them, their fear highlighted by the reliance on each other, while outside the nearby presence of the violent mob, searching for more victims, was palpably real.

Lacking Visual Coherence

Sellars was not, however, always helped by the scenographer, David Gropman, whose designs lacked overall coherence, and appeared to be designed on a scene by scene basis, and often unable to adapt to sharp changes in location. Act one starts in a lighthearted fashion, which Sellars and Gropman decided to present as a piece of comedy, but the set designs were not particularly amusing, and the appearance of a stuffed horse on wheels did nothing more than irritate.

The set for the bar scene, although too small for the stage, worked well; it had a bright, realistic design, which was not adversely affected by the presence of modern day, neon advertising, but the use of red plastic cups instead of glasses was inexplicable and drew the audience’s attention away from the drama. If it was Brechtian device to remind the audience it was in a theatre then it worked perfectly, but was no less pointless for the fact.

In Act two, Gropman opted for the adaptable setting of a felled Giant Redwood tree, it stump acting as a raised performance area. This worked very well indeed, except for the scenes set inside a room; the door being little more than a flap on a two-dimensional tree, with little else to signify where the scene was set, and verged on the amateur.

Rita Ryach’s traditional costumes, on the other hand, were excellent throughout, beautifully capturing the atmosphere of the period and setting. The one deviation from this, was the use of more modern costumes for the dancing girls who were dressed in short skirts, in the colors of the American flag, which in the context was wholly appropriate, if not historically accurate. The choreography, designed by John Heginbotham, also impressed, and the dancing scenes, especially, were cleverly worked.

Despite certain shortcomings, the staging did more than enough to convince. On the musical side, however, the standard was uniformly high, with the quality of the singing especially so.

Uniformly High

In the pit, Grant Gershon conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonich Orkest produced an animated and engaging performance, which moved slickly between the large choral numbers, with their catchy folksy melodies, to the more intimate, emotionally fraught solos and duets. Successfully driving the drama forward, but with varying degrees of intensity, Gershon ensured that the music maintained the dramatic tensions of the work, although during parts of the second act, whether due to music itself or to Gershon’s interpretation, there were periods in which the overarching momentum was lost.

Dame Shirley has travelled to Rich Bar with her husband, Lafayette. She is a warm hearted, strong willed person, with a refined character. Finding herself largely isolated, (her husband, a doctor, is always working), and in need of tenderness, she falls in love with Ned, a runaway slave.

Julia Bullock, playing the part, put in an exceptional performance, capturing the sensitivities of her character. Her singing was expressive and versatile, with clear, precise phrasing. Likewise, she put in an accomplished acting performance, moving easily between the comedy of the early scenes and the unfolding tragedy of the later scenes, adding a second act cameo performance of Lady Macbeth along the way, in which she sang with a harsher tone, frequent leaps and rising hysteria. She also brought the opera to an end with a splendidly rendered epilogue, “Sometimes I lounge forlornly to the window,” in which she contrasts the devastation caused by the miners with the beauty of California’s splendor.

Davone Tines was equally impressive in the role of Ned Peters. He gave a passionate performance in the part, in which he highlighted Ned’s moral integrity, intelligence and strength of character. With an authoritative bearing, standing alone and aloft, he gave voice to the inequality suffered by his race, in the aria, “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine;” attentive to the words, his firm warm bass-baritone projecting clearly, he delivered the lines with conviction and intensity.

Joe Cannon is a man who is lost. His wife, having run off with the butcher, no longer intends to follow him to California, and Joe’s life, exacerbated by the punishing environment, falls into pattern of self-destructive despair. In a marvelous portrayal, tenor Paul Appleby brought depth and nuance to his performance, in which he makes Cannon’s pain convincingly real, in which he searched for compassion and solace in alcohol and whores; he is a man out of control. His singing was finely crafted to depict Cannon’s emotional excesses, the vocal line subtly inflected to bring out the complexities of the troubled character.

The barmaid, Josefa, is the opera’s central victim, hanged by the mob for defending herself from Joe, who was attempting to molest her. A victim because of her sex and race. The mezzo-soprano, J’Nai Bridges, was excellent in the role. Maintaining a dignified calm, she faced the mob, and in a measured tone defended herself, the rich colous of her voice, its pleasing timbre and her careful, neat phrasing, fleshing out the character’s inner beauty.

The baritone, Elliot Madore played the part of the earnest, well-balanced, Ramon, who works in the bar with his bride-to-be, Josefa. Uniquely for this mining town they have a well-balanced and loving relationship. In a delightful duet Madore and Bridges’ voices combine, intimately complementing one another, in a reflection of the love they hold for each other, an oasis of pleasure within a loveless environment. Madore sang well throughout, his clear diction, colorful singing and vocal agility used to create a sympathetic portrait of a decent man.

The Chinese prostitute, Ah Sing, was played by Hye Jung Lee. Her soprano possesses a bright intensity, and a tonal purity which was able to light up the moral cesspit into which she had fallen. She sang with wonderful clarity and masterful control, her voice focused, steely and piercing, which reflected her superficial hard exterior.

Joe’s buddy, Clarence, whose awareness of the social deprivation and brutality which surrounds him does not prevent him from indulging in his share of atrocities. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny gave a nuanced, expressive portrayal, in which his observant comments, in sharp contrast to his brutish behavior, were unable to conceal his inner pain, his voice subject to outbursts of anger and misery.

Pungent & Energetic

The chorus has a large role, which was used to provide depth to the wider context of intolerance, greed, fatalism and wretchedness, rampant within the mining community, and for which Adams created a number of very catchy rhythmic melodies, based on the folk music idiom of 19th century America.

The director of the chorus, Ching-Lien Wu, oversaw a pungent and energetic performance from the Chorus of the Dutch National Opera, which when added to Heginbotham’s excellent choreography produced some powerful scenes: the gambling chorus in Act one, “A gambler’s life I do admire,” was forcefully delivered, in which the rhythmic drive of Adams’ music propelled the miners forward, their gambling out of control, the superficiality of their folksy melody unable to hide the bitterness they feel about their miserable situation. The final choral offering, “A short time sufficed to spread the grim report,” in which they surround Josefa was brilliantly staged, the menace in their voices palpable, in what was the arguably the most emotionally powerful scene of the opera.

“Girls of the Golden West” is a delicately balanced opera, which with the wrong direction could easily end up focusing on identity, rather than the drama. The fact that Sellars manages to elevate the dramatic side, while allowing its political issues to remain as undercurrents, clearly expressed, but subordinate, is a testament to his understanding of the theatrical medium.

Moreover, his ability to intensify the impact through mixing realistic and stylistic, at times even absurd, imagery was imaginative and worked reasonably well, but there were a number of instances that jarred. Adams’ score was atmospheric, pulsating and full of well-constructed melodies, with that distinctive gloss which makes Adams’ stage music so easily identifiable, borne of his well-honed skills and many years of writing for the theatre.

Overall, it is a successful piece of theatre, which will take its place among Adams’ other operatic masterpieces.


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