Cher Public

Golden wreck

I really wished to avoid joining the pig pile of derision that has fallen on SF Opera’s premiere of John Adams and Peter Sellars’ Girls of the Golden West. And I think, in a sense, that I can. Given the libretto that it had to work with, both John Adams’ composition and the SF Opera’s production did about as much as humanly possible to rescue this train-wreck of a dramatic piece from itself. But, unfortunately, they came up slightly short. 

Before going into the redemptive aspects of the performance (on which I plan to spend most of this review), it deserves mention that San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Joshua Kosman was absolutely right in his diagnosis of Girls’ weaknesses as a dramatic piece. The materials of Peter Sellars’ libretto – a series of reflections on California life from the letters of East Coast Gold Rush transplant Louise Clapp (“Dame Shirley”), are simply not the stuff of opera.

This situation was exacerbated by Sellars’ ill-advised attempts to fill the holes created by the letters (and to solve the problem of having Dame Shirley’s words appear not only on her own lips but on everyone else’s as well) by adding a series of excerpts from such incongruous sources as Lorca, Twain, Frederick Douglass, and Shakespeare. Taken together, this composite libretto supplied little drama, even less plot, and an endless supply of inane observations that seemed to lead nowhere and to have little relation to one another. It was a libretto that put composer John Adams behind the eight ball before he had even written a note.

Sellers and Adams often stated in the lead-up to Girls that they were seeking to create an opera grounded in California – a homegrown portrait of the messy but vibrant era in which today’s California finds its roots. Unfortunately, few non-self-loathing Californians will recognize their origins in this opera. Far from asking tough questions by showing the Gold Rush as it was – tumultuous, hard-edged, optimistic, sometimes brutal – Girls ended up just as cartoonish as the Puccini rendering it sought to update. Adams and Sellars’ version offers us a dystopian morality play, a vision of the Wild West seen through the eyes of 21st century Berkeleyites.

On one side of the stage (often literally) is the debauched and diabolical lynch mob of miners, all its non-gold-prospecting hours spent drinking, gambling, and finding foreigners to beat up. On the other side are a diverse cast of woman and minority characters, huddled together for comfort against the pitiless onslaught, which reaches its bitter climax in the execution of Josefa Segovia – the only woman ever hanged in the state of California.

There is even an onstage replica of the giant felled tree stump from Calaveras Big Trees State Park for the second act, which the miners dance and pace over with all the subtle symbolism of a Bugs Bunny short. Just in case you forgot, not only were the miners all rapacious nativists: they hated the earth, too!

But the low-hanging fruit of the opera’s cartoonish landscape has already been well-harvested by other critics, as has the inappropriateness of its incongruous non-narrative plot. Perhaps a more useful question to ask at this point is: given these faulty dramatic materials, how good a job did Adams in his scoring and the SF Opera in its production do of redeeming them? There is far more positive to say on that front.

John Adams’ score for Girls of the Golden West may not have the complexity of orchestral layering we find in Nixon in China, but it does manage to achieve a significant level of dramatic variation, orchestrational tone-painting, and occasional moments of poignant tenderness. The overall sound environment of the opera (in Adams or other minimalists there is nearly always an overriding aesthetic) was that of Copland’s Americana viewed through a sort of funhouse mirror. This musical mirror twisted airy open fifths into tritones, octaves into stinging sevenths and ninths, and intuitive rhythmic emphases into Stravinskian gut-punches, while distorting regular meters into irregular ones.

This approach was often quite successful. One particular example is the “Spider Dance” performed by Lorena Feijóo as Lola Montez, a burlesque number in which she gradually hikes up her skirts farther and farther under the pretext of a spider infestation in her nether regions. For this dance, Adams makes excellent use of timbral variety in the orchestra to build tension, combining mischievous chromatic scales in the clarinets and bassoons with violin trills. In the ultimate gesture of Lutoslawski-worthy cheekiness, he pulls the orchestrational rug out at the very end of this striptease, leaving the high woodwinds hanging in the air.

While the Spider Dance may represent the climax of Adams’ achievement within the prevailing aesthetic of the opera, the moments of respite he offers us from the austere environment are more poignant. These include Dame Shirley’s Act I reverie as she admires the beauty of a group of Native American girls on her wagon journey to the mines, and especially includes her epilogue to the opera, a meditative ode to the open California landscape over an accompaniment built on fifths and ninths. Given a rare opportunity to show some warmth for his California home, Adams took full advantage. Though it seemed somewhat incompatible in its musical language with the rest of the opera, so was its text – what’s a poor composer to do?

There were several other brilliant examples of Adam’s musical descriptiveness, and his abilities to use orchestration to mirror the action on stage. There was, for example, his use of snap or “Bartok” pizzicato in the strings to amplify the incisiveness of a scene where the miners’ mob clubs a group of Chilean laborers; the careening drunk music for lead miner Joe Cannon (Paul Appleby); or the titanic accompaniment to Ned Peters (Davóne Tines’) deeply affecting aria on a speech of Frederick Douglass.

Despite the (mostly rhythmic) challenges of Adams’ score, the SF Opera Orchestra found a sure-handed leader in conductor Grant Gershon. Though it was clear from his gestures that his primary preoccupation in performance was keeping everyone on the rails, he achieved this marvelously, providing all necessary information efficiently to the stage, and allowing expressive playing to arise organically from the orchestra. Ian Robertson was masterful as ever in his preparation of the men of the SF Opera Chorus (which formed the core of the miners’ mob). Given a series of screaming Orff-like barbarities to sing based on recompositions of traditional mining songs, Robertson supplied exactly the gruff tone and crystal-clear diction Adams called for.

The cast assembled for Girls of the Golden West was excellent overall, and frequently rescued the plodding narrative with sheer vocal artistry.

Soprano Julia Bullock as leading lady Dame Shirley managed to make the effortful look effortless. Given a devilishly taxing vocal part that by turns required thorny syncopations, precipitous register shifts, and long-phrased lyricism, Bullock showed an impressive range. Particularly poignant was her performance in the Act 2 play-within-a-play of a soliloquy of Lady Macbeth, rising to a climax of rhythmic tension on the offbeat-accented words “Hold! Hold! Hold!” In the epilogue to the opera, Bullock exhibited a shimmering and intimate lyricism which seemed, at least for a moment, to melt away all my reservations about the opera’s overall effectiveness. (For a moment…)

Even better was the performance by baritone Tines in the role of Ned Peters, a freed slave turned stagecoach driver who forms a close relationship with Dame Shirley. In an acting role that runs the gamut from the submissiveness of the driver to the defiant power of Frederick Douglass’ “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Tines showed an extraordinary nuance of presentation. In the latter aria, Tines powerfully embodied centuries of fury as his silhouette was projected garishly onto the severed tree stump behind him. Though the aria made little sense in the larger context of Girls (as can be said of so many things in this opera), as a standalone piece it had the deep impact of a work written by an observant composer just for Tines’ voice. Perhaps the aria could have a successful future life as a concert piece.

In the lead villain role of Joe Cannon, tenor Appleby played an effective caricature of the drunken, mercurial, and insatiably hedonistic miner. Unfortunately the musical character of Joe was as one-dimensional as his dramatic character, giving us little to evaluate. As an actor, however, he showed considerable ability, even managing to infuse some of his interactions with Chinese prostitute Ah Sing (Hye Jung Lee) with a bit of the genuine human warmth that his hot-blooded character so desperately needed. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, cast as fellow miner Clarence, gave an energetic performance, setting the opera’s rugged atmosphere from the opening prologue with a passage from Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

Lee in the role of Ah Sing – Joe’s lover and a prostitute with aspirations of escaping to a life of respectability – delivered a sweet, contained performance. Despite a soft whistle-like tone and some troubles controlling her vibrato in the upper range, she exhibited a great deal of vocal agility and a warmth with which the audience could comfortably relate.

The opera’s only real vocal disappointments were J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia and Elliot Madore in the role of her partner Ramón. Though the ineffectiveness of their roles may have been partly a function of the protracted periods they spent loitering nervously at the side of the stage (often accompanied by Ned), their vocal performances were largely unremarkable. While Madore’s tone was warm, he had difficulty making his voice carry at lower, more intimate dynamics. For Bridges, her weakness was more a function of lack of personality and variety in her interpretation of the role – a lack which became especially glaring with the awareness that her hanging constituted the climax of the entire opera.

For the most part, the staging of Girls of the Golden West supported the flawed anti-narrative at the opera’s core. Scenery was sparse, with disembodied taverns or living rooms lowered by pulley and rope onto the stage during set changes in full view of the audience. While the vignette-like scenes of Act 1 seemed to coalesce out of the ether of memory, the stage scenery mirrored that sense. When in Act 2 the vignettes merged into a more continuous dark tableaux of whippings, clubbings, and stabbings, the scenery changed to match.

Harsh red and blue lighting highlighted the farce of the Fourth of July celebration happening on stage, while piped-in angry mob sound-effects attempted to build a menacing atmosphere. All of this, of course, occurred before (and on top of) our enduring symbol of the miners’ callousness, the omnipresent tree stump. Well, at least when it comes to pounding home his message, no one can accuse Peter Sellars of inconsistency!

Photo: Cory Weaver

  • ruxxy

    I think you were very brave to even go to see any production that emanated out of the brain of Peter Sellars. lol

    • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

      Brain? Peter Sellars? Do they belong in the same sentence? He had a few original ideas in the 1980s and now just repeats them ad nauseum while trying to make political statements.

      What truly puzzles me is what keeps John Adams continuing this collaboration, when it has clearly been deemed disastrous since Alice Goodman (unfortunately) dropped out of “Dr. Atomic.” I will stick with Adams’ glorious orchestral works (post “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer”).

  • Camille

    “Pig pile of derision” is certainly the most colorful descriptive phrase I’ve heard in a long time.

    After reading your quite patient and polite description of the proceedings I’m only left thinking “what a shame”.

    The idea of it, a kind of reality check response to the risible improbabilities and happy-ever-after ending of Fanciulla, may have started out on the right path, but without a conception with a specifically theatric construct to make it viable, and without a proper librettist—meaning one who knows to take an idea and/or materials and refashion them to the composer’s needs within this very specific working construct—one gets endless streams of wishful thinking and dramatic psycho-babble that go on and have no point. Mr Sellars is a director and should inow some of the basic tenets of what holds in the theatre and what doesn’t. Libretto crafting is a very specific artform and la parola scenica is what is needed here, above all else and all other conceits and flights of fancy.

    Mr Kerman’s diagnosis seems entirely apt and, yes, Puccini did make a fair trade-off and still remains the winner of the Golden West. At least, until the revised version comes on down the pike. Can the “Girls of the Golden West Suite” be far behind?

    Thanks for your considerable efforts in describing all this to us and in carefully stepping around that pig pile. Not an easy thing to accomplish.

    • Porgy Amor

      Happy-ever-ending of Fanciulla? Well…for two people, it may seem. But Jake Wallace’s homesickness ballad is getting a reprise from the Polka boys for a reason. No one will be reading to them and looking after them anymore. A rough life just got rougher.

      • Camille

        Oh, they don’t COUNT, honey, as there are just the back up band and everybody knows it’s ALL about the soprano and the tenor living happily on, in Nevada where their Faro Casino is the first in the state to feature a lynching if one loses. Win, and you can peck Minnie on the cheek a time or two.

        No, think about it--neither of the two protagonists die--and that’s been a part of why Minnie has not been as popular—well, so they say, as good girls gotta die. ‘Cept Turandot, and she the baddest byotch around. Anyway, she’s cosa non umana, just ask her.

        And besides, there are a lot of fish in the sea and good old Lola Montez, who lies buried not too far as the crow flies from where I now sit and whom I am always intending to go pay a visit to in “The Old Country” aka Brooklyn, is BOUND to come to town sometime thereafter, bucking up all those boys sniveling away for their good ol’ gal Minnie. She’ll make ’em fergit that Bible-toter! Minnie may have been sweet but she didn’t dance a fancy pants fast fandango, nor show the boys her underdrawers, neither!

        Another day; another golden dollar in the Golden State!

    • Christian Ocier

      I’m not sure how Adams could write a suite or symphony from this opera. Doctor Atomic at least had stretches of memorable themes, but you couldn’t convince me that West had anything worth incorporating into a summative orchestral score.

      • Camille

        Is that so? Well then, mayhap a revision along the lines of what Alex Ross mentions could eventually bring forth a suite?

        It seems such a shame that an opportunity to tell the real story of the notorious days of the Gold Rush, so critically important to the formation of the Golden State, is just going for naught.

        As someone who knows and loves this state, I simply regret the loss of an opportunity that successfully would tell more, to tell all, to tell the truth of the many whose lives were sacrificed and of whom we never hear, but were the foundation upon which all was forged, in that mad scramble that the Gold Fever engendered, and which is the basic key to the history of the place. A cobbled together, quasi-plagiaristic cut and paste-up of someone else’s words seems to me to be insulting to the listener/viewer. Who needs that?

        • Christian Ocier

          The revisions would have to stem from a major overhaul of the libretto, otherwise Adams remains crippled by the uninspired text. I attended one of the performances and couldn’t help but cringe at the lackluster and unmusical text. I am not saying that we should go back to the linguistic structure of operas written by Wagner, Verdi, Berg, or Strauss, but certainly write something that communicates theater efficiently. There was no theatricality to that opera, no glue that held the characters or the narrative together. For the most part, I found myself wondering why I cared about the events unfolding before me onstage. By the time the second act came, I was still trying to figure out some of the characters. TWO full hours sitting in the warm nosebleed section of the War Memorial.

          • Camille

            I hear you and offer my condolences.

            Maybe the solution is a) to keep some of the music and rework it into a suite which succeeds, and b) entirely throw out the libretto and hire a new librettist, then, c) rework the libretto to the music which works and in this reworking give this Œuvre a new title. Or is that too much work?

            Or maybe just listen La Fanciulla del West and be happy?

            • Christian Ocier

              I did listen to a Fanciulla recording--1956 Vintage from La Scala, with Corelli, Frazzoni, and Gobbi and Votto in the pit--after that evening’s pretentious travesty from Willy Wonka. It was heaven, and effectively cleansed my head of the dreck I saw at the War Memorial (my first opera there! Oy, what a terrible first impression. I’ll need to bring a stick of Axe to my next San Francisco Opera visit to remove all traces of Sellars’s effluvia) and San Francisco’s salient second hand pot stench. Real Italian voices, with that resonant “spin” that my mind conjures when you hear artists who hailed from that now extinct performance tradition. A mix of fine Milanese leather, fire, thunder, blood, and velvet. And really interesting characters. Thank god for Spotify.


            • Christian Ocier

              Just listened to the Mitropoulos recording with Del Monaco, Steber, and Guelfi. What a great performance!

            • PCally

              Maybe my favorite Puccini performance, tied with the mitopoulos Tosca with Tebaldi and Tucker. I was not much of a Puccini fan until I heard those performances and heard how viscerally stunning his work can be when everyone is on the same page.

            • I’ve always been a big Puccini fan and my years opera fandom have not diminished that love. So, I didn’t need convincing.

              But I absolutely agree about those two Mitropolous recordings. Easily among the greatest live Puccini recordings I’ve ever heard.

            • PCally

              I think that Puccini is among the hardest composers of the standard repertoire to cast today and every first performance I saw of Puccini opera tended to be pretty crappy and the few of the mets Puccini productions were any good, so I think it just turned me off of his work for a while.

            • bertrand simon

              Indeed Mitropoulos was a truly great great conductor and no one approaches his Fanciulla . This Tosca is great too but not alone .

            • Tamerlano

              The way Steber starts the “Laggíu” on that lovely silvery thread of sound and then deftly builds it to that wonderful easy high C is just glorious singing.

            • Camille

              Second hand pot stench? Ewwww—is that now apparent on the streets there? I have been catching of whiff of stinkweed now and again here, too. When I was in S.F. several years back there was never a whiff.

              I’m sorry your first experience of that beautiful house was such a one as it was, considering all the gloriousness which has transpired there. Give it another chance.

            • Christian Ocier

              At least a two mile radius from Civic Center smelled like pot. It felt so weird walking around the city while inhaling that acrid, skunk-like stench.

              Based on its history, I know that it’s a wonderful house--I own many pirate recordings of great performances that have taken place there, spanning the great Wagner operas featuring Flagstad and Melchior, to the Frau’s with Bohm from the 70s, to the Runnicles Ring with the most divine Stemme. I also know that many European artists usually make their debuts there before the Met, and that certain more obscure European operas (like Lear or Messiaen’s Francois d’Assisi) made their US premieres there. It’s just unfortunate that my first SFO show was a Sellars production. Someday, I’ll revisit the city, but this time for Wagner or Strauss, or something more to my taste. Who knows, I may postdoc in the Bay Area, so getting to the SFO wouldn’t be too difficult!

              By the way, for my birthday this year, I made the cake featured in this post. It’s a chocolate sponge split in half, sandwiching a layer of chocolate hazelnut mousse, chesnut mousse, more chestnut mousse on top, and a marron puree passed through a MontBlanc ricer. The top is decorated with cherries. In honor of my favorite soprano, I called it La Stemme Divine. :)

            • Williams

              That recipe could only be improved by adding a healthy fistful of kush.

            • Camille

              Thank you for sharing but that would obviously be de trop. It is obviously a masterpiece as it is now.

            • Camille

              That is VERY sweet and sweet of you to think of your fave, La Niña, that way. You ought to send her the recipe.

              Your birthday is just past, so you are either a Scorpio or a Sagittarius, then. Well, you doubtless will not lead a dull life! Happy returns of the day to you, my dear young friend!

            • Christian Ocier

              I’m actually a Libra! Do I still get to live my adventurous life? Hopefully one with Lise Davidsen as my Wagnerian heroine of choice?

            • Camille

              Lovely, lovely Libra -and lucky you.
              A far more equanimous existence.
              Be happy to be that which you are.

              Maybe Lise Davidsen will work out and maintain her integrity, vocal and otherwise. I think Nina had it for a long time, anyway, but it all passes wie Dunst im Traum.

            • Dharmabray

              I agree! In the week I was in San Francisco all I smelt was pot. On the streets, in doorways, passing windows, inside BART, even the smell coming out of a toll collector’s booth on the Richmond Bridge…

  • MichaelStrickland

    Well, you certainly jumped into the pig pile of received opinion with both feet, which is fine. The only phrasing that rubbed me the wrong way was “Unfortunately, few non-self-loathing Californians will recognize their origins in this opera.” Is a self-loathing Californian like a self-loathing fag or a self-loathing Jew? Just curious. As a self-loving born and raised Californian, I welcomed seeing the history that is still being elided in official accounts. 90% of the Native American population were murdered by these “tumultuous, hard-edged, optimistic, sometimes brutal” Yankees, and their racism still permeates the entire culture, though not as horribly as the East Coast. And may I just add how tired I have become of watching Easteners moving to California, having nervous breakdowns about the lack of leaves changing in the fall, and then becoming the most outrageously stereotypical “Californians”?

    • gryphone

      As a fellow Californian, I could not have said it better. Thank you.

      • MichaelStrickland

        Thanks so much, California wingperson.

  • Lisa Hirsch

    If you had problems hearing anyone, blame problems with the amplification (all singers were wearing body microphones) and on sound designer Mark Grey.

    • Christian Ocier

      I did notice that Ramon’s mike sounded very obvious during one of the scenes with Josefa.

  • Camille

    Another GG review:

    Call in Bea Arthur and the girls to the rescue.