Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Girls of the Golden West is more Ken Burns than Puccini

Historic photo of miners in California's Sierra Nevada


San Francisco Opera, Girls of the Golden West

San Francisco Opera is presenting the world premiere of John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ gold-rush opera, Girls of the Golden West. And while the title playfully suggests a kinship to David Belasco’s 1905 play, The Girl of the Golden West, and Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 Italian opera, La fanciulla del West, this new work has a lot more in common with Ken Burns in the way it approaches this seminal event in American history.

Through its use of documentary source material and historic visual references, the opera presents a multi-cultural panoramic view of the California gold rush. And while Adams and Sellars appreciate the romance, they are not interested in enveloping their audience in a golden haze of nostalgia. Rather, they explore the darker realities of the gold rush that continue to plague American society today — disparities between rich and poor, acts of violence toward people of color and Native Americans, ecological destruction, and the abuse of women.

When Adams and Sellars created their landmark historical operas: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, they had a specific framework of events to follow, whether it was Nixon meeting with Chairman Mao, the Palestinians hijacking the Achille Lauro, or the race to develop the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

Prospector Clarence (Ryan McKinny) arrives at the gold fields
Like a Ken Burns documentary, Girls of the Golden West unfolds as an historical tapestry that weaves together parallel storylines — from the era of discovery in 1848 when gold was plentiful and there was camaraderie among the miners, to 1851 when gold had to be hewn from the rock. Failure was common, along with death from accidents, disease, and alcohol driven violence.

Sellars’ libretto stitches together several historic events based on accounts drawn from newspaper clippings, historical writing by academics like Josiah Royce, and first hand accounts, most notably the Shirley Letters, an extensively detailed journal written by Louise Clappe under the pen name, “Dame Shirley.”

Original Playbill
There are also passages from Mark Twain’s Roughing It, lyrics from rollicking bawdy miner’s songs, verses by the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, Chinese lyrics from Songs of Gold Mountain, and a remarkable aria of righteous anger inspired by Fredrick Douglas’s incendiary July 5, 1852 speech, “What to a slave is the Fourth of July?” The opera also features a traveling Shakespearean theater company performing the bloody Scottish tragedy and an evocative appearance by the scandalous European harlot, Lola Montez.

Authentic as it is, Sellars’ libretto is decidedly word-heavy. And while its accuracy and first person narratives are admirable, there are times when you may feel like you're reading the opera instead of experiencing it.

Eureka, I Found It! 

Davóne Tines and Julia Bullock
Girls of the Golden West begins with the strike of a pick. It’s an act that symbolizes the quest for gold, while establishing the first metric pulse that will permeate the score. Then, as the opera’s libretto introduces its multiple storylines, Adams creates different musical “voices” to delineate the characters— from the rambunctious syncopated songs of the miners at the Empire Saloon (with hints of the Jets in West Side Story) to lush orchestral textures that accompany Dame Shirley’s narratives, to the rhapsodic strumming of a Spanish guitar. Conducted by Grant Gershon, these musical portraits come together to create a landscape that moves between moments of poetic stillness, panoramic expanse, bawdy energy and towering momentum.

The superb young soprano Julia Bullock plays Dame Shirley. Arriving from the East in 1851 as the young wife of a doctor, she captures perfectly her character’s sense of wide-eyed enthusiasm for the rough-and-tumble world she’s entered with all its physical hardships. Her descriptions, which Sellars’ direction melds superbly to the action, are vividly detailed and non-judgmental toward the boom-and-bust lifestyle of the miners. But it is her account of meeting a destitute band of Indians that provides the opera with its first great aria and hint of the darker forces that are at work in the gold fields.

While still on the trail, the couple makes friends with Ned Peters, a skilled wrangler and escaped slave (sung with immense strength and dignity by Davóne Tines). Their lives become intermingled. But as time passes and the once plentiful gold becomes harder and harder to mine, Ned sees an atmosphere of violent racism growing. His anger finally explodes in a remarkable second act aria set to the words of Frederick Douglas’s speech. And while the moment clearly is meant to reference the Black Lives Matter movement and the events that took place in Charlottesville, Douglas’s words of indictment were actually spoken in 1852, almost a decade before the Civil War!

Miners gather at the Empire Saloon
Without a doubt the majority of women that found their way to the gold fields came as prostitutes. And while their life was undoubtedly hard, their company was in such demand that a woman who knew how to ply her craft skillfully could get rich without ever panning for a single gold nugget. One renowned prostitute reportedly made $50,000 in a single year.

Josefa Segovia (J'Nai Bridges)
Hye Jung Lee plays Ah Sing, a Chinese prostitute who has made the long journey from China in search of the Gold Mountain known as California. Written for coloratura soprano, Lee, who is slender as a willow, combines high notes that are as clear and hard-edged as quartz crystal with softer moments of dulcet purring. Her primary admirer is the miner Joe Cannon (Paul Appleby). When his fortunes are up, Joe’s a loving partner. But as fortunes fail the miners begins to look for someone to blame. The targets of choice tend to be Mexicans, Chinese, Chileans and Indians.

J’Nai Bridges plays the real-life character of Josefa Segovia. Her lover, Ramón, is sung by Elliot Madore. As original Californios their place in the community is initially accepted. But as times change and restrictive punitive taxes are imposed (essentially as a way for Americans to steal the land), their situation becomes more and more tenuous. Like a calm before the storm, the first act ends with the couple singing a rapturous duet expressing their love for one another and their feelings of being at peace with the world, a beautiful moment not to last.

Independence Day

The second act takes place on the fateful day of July 4th, 1851. It’s a raucous scene that brings to mind the pistol-packin’ Playboy bunnies performance in Apocalypse Now. Only here the bunnies are the star-spangled prostitutes of Downieville dancing on top of the massive sawn-off stump of a Giant Sequoia.

Lola Montez (Lorena Feijóo) performs the "Spider Dance" - Photo: Stefan Cohen
The drunken festivities climax with the appearance of Lola Montez (dancer Lorena Feijóo) who performs her overtly lewd, crowd-pleasing “Spider Dance.” The mood darkens when Josefa is forced to stab a drunken miner who attempts to rape her. And just as the actual event took place, she is arrested, tried by a vigilante court and hung. The way the scenes unfold, and the way Adams builds up to the horrifying moment when Josefa is lynched is a study in protracted dramatic tension.

Throughout the production David Gropman’s set design makes it clear that past and present are omnipresent in California. The Empire Bar sports a glowing neon sign for Sierra Nevada ale. But the single most powerful image is the sawed-off stump that consistently frames and provides a stage for the action.

Girls of the Golden West may not possess the pinpoint focus of Nixon or Klinghoffer. It is, however, an exceedingly powerful opera and a timely expression of who we are — then and now. Future productions are planned for Dallas Opera and the Dutch National Opera.


Unless otherwise indicated, production photos are by Cory Weaver


David J Brown said...

A very interesting alternate view of the work, which other reviews I have seen pretty much slam. Thank you, Jim.

Rodney Punt said...

Welcome to LA Opus, Jim. This interesting and thoughtful review is hopefully the first of many such for our on-line journal.