Girl of the Golden West Review – Reactions to Puccini’s “Oater”

It is eleven o’clock at night, and I can’t sleep.¬† I have just walked the quarter mile from the Opera House to my room at Days Inn, and I am still full of the opera: The Girl of the Golden West in a new production celebrating the 100th anniversary of its first performance in 1910.

I thought I had seen it before, but I remembered virtually nothing of it.¬† Which means, either (a) it was a poor performance, (b) I was too immature to appreciate it, or (c) I didn’t see it in the first place.¬† I think I’ll go with (c) and change the title to Girl of the Golden West Review – First Impressions of Puccini’s Oater.

Act 1

The dramatic opening chord of the overture caught my attention.¬† Shortly afterwards the curtain went up to a fantastic set.¬† The entire back wall of the stage was a weatherworn reddish-brown vertical cliff rising to the very top of the theatre.¬† About half a dozen miners were suspended on rappel ropes, each holding a pick which they swung in balletic movements in time to the music.¬†¬† As the overture ended they were lowered to the ground and became part of the miner’s chorus,

Speaking of the chorus, they were terrific.¬† They could fill the stage or leave open pockets.¬† They moved to accent a particular one of them who had a solo line.¬† They entered and exited smoothly and rapidly.¬† And, most important, they sang beautifully.¬† I was particularly impressed where the orchestra was silent and the chorus was accompanying a soloist with pianissimo “la la la”.

Act 1

Act 1 takes place in the Polka saloon.  It is 55 minutes long.  With a less skillful composer or director it might drag.  Its purpose is to introduce the characters and the society in which they live.  The audience seeing the opera in San Francisco has some familiarity with mining camps during the California gold rush.  But 100 years ago when Puccini wrote The Girl of the Golden West, opera audiences in Europe and eastern US would find it strange and exotic.

In addition to the three principal characters, there are twelve members of the chorus who are listed by name in the program and most have several solo lines.  The act is filled with action, most of which is unrelated to the main plot but lets us know the characters and the society.  There is an incident of card cheating, the Wells Fargo stagecoach arrives, a collection is taken to let a homesick miner return to his home, etc,

Sheriff Jack Rance (Roberto Frontall) participates in some of these episodes, but it is well past the halfway point before the other two principals appear.¬† We learn about Rance’s lust for Minnie (Deborah Voigt) and see the beginning of love between Dick Johnson (Salvatore Licitra) and Minnie.¬† The audience finds out that Johnson is really the bandit Ramerrez.

The music is not as tuneful as in Puccini’s other operas.¬† But it is extremely dramatic.¬† Every note and every instrumentation were exactly right for the action on stage.

Act 2

The audience gasped when the curtain went up to reveal the setting for Act 2.¬† Instead of one cliff lining the back of the stage, there were two angled at either side with a gap between serving to define a small clearing where Minnie’s cottage stood.¬† The cliffs were all white with snow and throughout the act a gentle snow fell in the gap.

Johnson shows up by invitation and proceeds to woo her.¬† After some resistance she gives him her “first kiss”.¬† They hear hoof beats and Johnson hides.¬† I particularly noticed the music here; it suggested hoof beats but was not as blatant as Ferde Grof…’s On the Trail.

The drama and the tension build throughout the act.  First Rance, then Minnie find out that Johnson is Ramerrez.  Minnie orders Johnson to leave, but when he returns wounded, she hides him.  Rance is about to rape Minnie when he discovers Johnson instead.  In desperation, Minnie proposes a high-stakes game of poker: if Minnie loses, Rance can take Johnson and Minnie will submit to him; if Minnie wins, Rance will go off and leave Johnson for Minnie to nurse back to health.  Rance agrees to the terms.

As Rance takes off his jacket and sits at the small table, Minnie gets the cards.¬† Rance isn’t looking, but we see Minnie secrete some cards in the edge of her shoe, hidden by her long dress.¬† Meanwhile a clever zooming in on the card table is being perfectly executed.¬† All the other parts of the cabin are drawn away to the perimeter of the stage, leaving a table and two chairs in the middle with a green-shaded hanging light over it.¬† We are really focused on the action.

Draw poker.  Two out of three.   He shuffles.  She cuts.  He deals.  She wins.

She shuffles.  He cuts.  She deals.  He wins.

Final hand.¬† The music swells and becomes more ominous.¬† He shuffles.¬† She hesitates, then, cuts.¬† They draw.¬† He smiles an evil smile and announces, “Three kings!”

Act 3

As Rance gloats in anticipation his attention wanders.¬† Minnie ditches the cards from her hand into her bosom, retrieves the cards from her shoe, and counters, “Three aces and two jacks.”

Puccini has created some complex characters here.¬† Minnie – pure, sweet, virtuous Minnie – will cheat at cards if the stakes are high enough.¬† And Rance – evil, would-be rapist Rance – wouldn’t dream of welshing on a bet; he walks away empty-handed.¬† Minnie exultantly cries, “He’s mine!” and the curtain falls.

Act 3

After all this Puccini has the nerve to write a third act!¬† But I’m not going to tell you about it, except to say that it contains the only memorable aria in the opera, and it is not anti-climactic.¬† When you go to see it (you are going, aren’t you?¬† It plays twice a week with its final performance on Friday, July 2) you will not be disappointed in Act 3.

Four down, one to go.  Stay tuned for Die Walkure.

The Girl of the Golden West
Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Guelfo Civinni and Carlo Zanzarini

Approximate running time: 3 hours including 2 intermissions
Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Co-production with Teatro Massimo di Palermo and Opera Royal de Wallonie

Jack Rance      Roberto Frontali
Dick Johnson   Salvatore Licitra
Minnie             Deborah Voigt
Conductor       Nicola Luisotti
(July 2)     Giuseppi Finzi
Director          Lorenzo Mariani

Saturday, June 12 8:00pm
Tuesday, June 15, 8:00pm
Friday, June 18, 8:00pm
Thursday, June 24, 7:30pm
Sunday, June 27, 2:00pm
Tuesday, June 29, 7:30pm
Friday, July 2, 8:00pm

San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-4008

Photos: models courtesy of San Francisco Opera

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in on June 3, 2010.

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