The Girl of the Golden West

By Giacomo Puccinithe girl of the  golden west By Giacomo Puccini

Libretto by Guelfo Civinini

and Carlo Zangarini

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis

Stage Director Vincent Liotta

Based on the play by David Belasco

At the Lyric Opera of Chicago

Deadwood meets Opera

After the resounding success of Madame Butterfly, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini had trouble finding a new subject.  Upon a visit to America three years after its debut, to see a New York premiere of his Manon Lescaut at the Metropolitan, he happened upon a production of David Belasco’s play, The Girl of the Golden West, and immediately set to work on an operatic adaptation.  The result is this sentimental melodrama, in the best sense of both of those words.

the girl of the  golden west By Giacomo Puccini

The opera, set in a small mining town during the California gold rush, has two pervading themes: the love between Minnie, expertly played by soprano Deborah Voigt, and Dick Johnson, brought to life by Italian tenor Marcello Giordani; and the dire and driving threat of theft, of how easily a town’s work of years can be pilfered by a single act of duplicity.  As it turns out, these two themes come directly into conflict when it is brought to light that Dick Johnson is actually the dashing outlaw Ramerrez – who, despite his decision against burgling the town, nevertheless ends up on the gallows.

the girl of the  golden west By Giacomo Puccini

Puccini is in fine form here, with gorgeous melodies (including one Andrew Lloyd Weber quoted in his Phantom of the Opera) and luscious orchestration, which are most deftly executed by their performers, both in the pit and on stage.  There never was, and probably never will be, a sour note in this production.  Everything is picture-perfect, including the sets, which, although they do take some time to set up during the two intermissions, and occasionally have a problem with doors staying closed, are overall remarkable in their execution and beauty – just as one would expect of an opera in the grand style.

the girl of the  golden west By Giacomo Puccini

It is also, for an opera, quite well-acted. There is something of a joke in the theatre world about how difficult it is to get opera singers to do anything but step forward and sing; once upon a time they looked down on acting.  Times do change, however, and almost the entire ensemble was quite adept, with the Italian baritone Marco Vratogna’s portrayal of the sheriff Jack Rance particularly liked by the audience.  There were moments of overlarge physicality or overdramatic movements, but, where they would be risible in a stage play, in opera they rise up to meet the melodrama – or are at least forgiven.

the girl of the  golden west By Giacomo Puccini

The Girl of the Golden West is an example of opera verité, about regular people and regular events, in reaction to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s eviscerating Wagner and his mythical themes, favoring instead Bizet’s Carmen, saying, “Have more painful tragic accents ever been heard on the stage?  How are they achieved?  Without grimaces.  Without counterfeit.  Without the lie of the great style.”  Granted, Nietzsche would probably not have said the same about Puccini’s opera: The Girl is not so philosophical a work; its conceptions of love are more pure, simple, traditional.  It is a bit lighter – it has more fluff to it.  But that fact degrades neither the spectacle nor the enjoyment that gratifies the spectator.

Highly Recommended.

Will Fink

At the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL; call 312-332-2244, www.lyricopera.org; tickets $56-$217, through Feb. 21.  Running time is 3 hours, with two intermissions.

Samples from the San Francisco Opera production: