Thursday, December 07, 2017

Girls of the Golden West

The new John Adams opera, Girls of the Golden West, is just finishing up its world premiere run at the San Francisco Opera and the reviews have been mostly "mixed/deeply disappointed" with a few outliers, from the savage (Kosman in the SF Chronicle with "tofurkey") to adulatory (Mark Swed in the L.A. Times). Oddly enough, I don't really disagree with any of the reviews, and can see why they loved/were disappointed/hated the opera, but put me in the love column. This is an extraordinary score by Adams, simpler to absorb and more direct than his recent large-scale pieces Doctor Atomic, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and Scheherezade 2.0. It also deromanticizes the usual California Gold Rush story and brings wider exposure to the real history, which is Yankees arriving en masse for treasure, murdering the non-white natives, pillaging the earth, and creating a racist structure that we are all still living in. (All production photos are by Stefan Cohen or Cory Weaver, courtesy of SF Opera.)

The spine of the libretto that Peter Sellars compiled from original sources and poems is taken from the Dame Shirley letters, 23 missives sent by Louise Clappe describing the Feather River Gold Rush adventures she was witnessing with her young doctor husband, Fayette. Julia Bullock above played Clappe and Davóne Tines played Ned Peters, the mulatto Renaissance man: stagecoach driver, violinist, chef, entrepreneur. The staging hinted at an extramarital affair between the two of them while a supernumerary playing Fayette wandered around in a top hat looking clueless. The impression I had reading the letters was that Ned was probably gay – he worships Louise like a queen, makes her gourmet meals out of scraps, and helps her decorate her meager housing. It did not matter, though, because Bullock and Tines worked together so well and were so obviously delighted with each other that you hoped they were secretly carrying on. And their miming of a rough stagecoach ride together while singing is one of the first highlights of the opera.

Many audience members had a hard time with the first act which has a collage quality, one character and situation after the next presented in a meandering fashion. A lot of people also complained about the slowness, which probably comes from the early scene above where Louise sings a striking section direct from one of the early letters about coming across a group of female Indians. It is equal parts 19th century racist and poetically poignant and the music which accompanies it is very beautiful, but the scene stops the heady momentum of the minimalist pickaxe opening with Paul Appleby and Ryan McKinney, followed by the Louise/Ned stagecoach scene.

The Empire saloon in Rich Bar on the Feather River, where most of the miners lost whatever gold they had to professional gamblers, is the setting for the first big male chorus. As Sellars explained before the performance, the texts are all taken from settings of actual miners' songs, "which are sort of sad-sack tales set to Pop! Goes The Weasel." A friend wrote on my Facebook feed, "the insipid choral songs are not even Broadway worthy." Now there I disagree. The choruses are extraordinary, the text short, plainspoken, a bit brutal and the music seemingly simple but insanely difficult and complex to perform, with meters changing every other measure. The upsurge in musical quality between the first and fifth performances was huge, not only for the chorus but for all the performers who are still settling into this simple-on-the-outside, complex-on-the-inside music.

Hye Jung Lee and Paul Appleby play the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing and miner from Missouri Joe Cannon. Lee slayed everyone as Madame Mao in Nixon in China a few years ago, and followed it up with a great Olympia in Tales of Hoffman. As Ah Sing, she negotiates the practical, hard-minded character of someone who was sold into sex slavery at age 10 with the hopeful adult who wants to marry the handsome young miner, Joe Cannon, and have her own farm. Appleby does wonders to make a racist, drunken jerk a sweetly sexy guy you can see Ah Sing might fall in love with, and gives a great vocal performance with the text of more actual miners' songs.

Act Two unfolds over one night on the Fourth of July and much of the action takes place on a large redwood stump. The sinister, exciting opening features Louise and the wonderful Ryan McKinney as Clarence performing a scene for the miners from Shakespeare's Macbeth, and it sets up the darkness to come. Later, Ah Sing performs another musical highlight, where she ethereally spins out one sweet high note after another while singing of the new land. Meanwhile, the chorus of miners sits on folding chairs at the foot of the stage singing in counterpoint about this rich land ready for plunder. This sequence is as good as anything John Adams has ever composed.

Joe Cannon begins his string of bad behavior while singing about how he's "trapped in a tiger cage," presumably referring to the Chinese golddigger he has been squiring. After fleeing, the miners stop Ah Sing from following him, and form a mob to drive out all non-white miners from the camp.

Two other characters, J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia and Elliot Madore as Ramon (both excellent), who work at the gaming tables of The Empire hotel, are onstage most of the second act as their household becomes a haven for fellow refugees from the violence, some of whom have been whipped or had their ears cut off.

The next musical highlight is Davóne Tines singing a solo aria taken from Frederick Douglass' speech, "What to a slave is the Fourth of July?" Both the music and Tines' performance were so electrifying that the moment became an instant classic. Black Lives Matter might want to adopt it as an anthem, especially if they can have Tines perform.

Mayhem, whipping and the lynching of Josefa after she has stabbed Joe Cannon to death finish up the evening's festivities, and the opera ends with Julia Bullock as Louise Clappe singing an exquisite passage from the letters about the unfathomable majesty of the Sierra Nevada surroundings.

I went to a symposium in Herbst Theater on an evening after the cast had just finished their first piano dress rehearsal. They looked thrilled and exhausted in equal measure. The most interesting moment was when the non-white singers talked about the strange, new thrill accompanying their first rehearsal. "I am almost always the only person of color in any opera production cast, but I arrived for this and we were everywhere."

The director and librettist Peter Sellars (above right, with J'Nai Bridges and Elliot Madore) rubs a lot of people the wrong way (I've read "cis Harvard white man") but he really does walk the walk when it comes to racial issues and casting. When he presented his grand L.A. Festival in the 1990s, he didn't open it at the downtown Music Center but at a cliffside park in San Pedro, with the artists and audience joining in a walk and performance down on the beach. My late, Los Angeles beach woman mother was there, and she thought it was easily the coolest thing she had ever witnessed culturally in L.A. I'm not convinced by Sellars' work as a stage director, but as an inspirational figure helping to birth works of art, rather like Diaghelev and his Ballets Russe, he is unparalleled in our time. There were complaints about his cut-and-paste libretto for Girls of the Golden West, but it was the same technique he's been using since El Niño, so it should not have been a surprise to anyone, and I think the Girls libretto is one of his better ones.

The last performance will be this Sunday at 2PM at the SF Opera House and you will probably find me in balcony standing room because I want to hear the full stereophonic sound of the spectacularly great orchestra under conductor Grant Gershon up there. Join me. This opera will eventually be a classic and you can say you were there.

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