Who’d have thought an opera about the Californian Gold Rush could feel quite so contemporary? Even its composer, John Adams, admitted he didn’t see that coming when he started work on his latest magnum opus during the early days of Donald Trump’s tilt at the White House. Receiving the San Francisco Opera Medal onstage following the well-received premiere performance, Adams took a swing at the divisive immigration policies of the Trump Administration; his only comfort, he maintained, was living in California. In fact, though the historically refracted Girls of the Golden West is a far cry from the relative topicalities of Richard Nixon, the hijacking of the Achille Lauro or even the testing of the first atomic bomb, with themes of patriotism, the American Dream, integration, racism and the thorny question of what constitutes being an American placed stage front and centre, I doubt you’ll see a more chilling reminder of the simmering forces that can lead to an explosion like Charlottesville anytime soon.
Ryan McKinny, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore in Girls of the Golden West. Photo © Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera
Director and long-time Adams collaborator Peter Sellars has come up with a dramatically cohesive and searingly effective libretto, culled from first-hand accounts of the original 49ers and those who knew them. Mark Twain’s Roughing It rubs shoulders with Cantonese rhymes from San Francisco’s Chinatown, Frederick Douglas’s invective What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (to which the 49ers were apparently partial and which they could recite chapter and verse), the Gold Rush diary of Argentinian-Chilean prospector Ramón Gil Navarro and miners’ songs of the period.
Over and through it all, crucially, are threaded excepts from The Shirley Letters, the series of witty, thoughtful, microscopically well-observed missives sent by writer and doctor’s wife Louise Clappe to her sister Molly back home in New England. Under the flamboyantly literary nom de plume “Dame Shirley”, Clappe detailed a year and a half spent around Rich Bar in the Sierra Nevada, her observations ranging from the ways of the local ‘Indian’ population, the ins and outs of prospecting, various modes of gambling, the disastrous repercussions of a beer-fuelled Fourth of July and, perhaps most notably, her radiant accounts of the overwhelming natural beauty of the place. Sellars and Adams do honour to this eminently readable – and easily available in Australia via Amazon – literary pioneer by placing her at the heart of a compellingly driven tale of love, lust and the urge to survive and prosper at any cost.
Julia Bullock in Girls of the Golden West. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Mining his story entirely from found sources, Sellars has pulled out and polished his very own nugget of gold. First, we see Dame Shirley’s arrival in Rich Bar, husband mutely in tow. Clappe’s letters leave a sketchy sense of Fayette, her mildly ineffectual spouse, yet Sellars places him in every scene. His stiff, gentrified presence seems hopelessly out of kilter with the circumstances to which his wife, forced to sleep on tables, doors and one awful night in a “bed-buggy berth”, seems to take like a duck to the proverbial. She, meanwhile, appears far more simpatico with ‘Paganini’ Ned Peters, a freed slave and something of a local MasterChef, his educated manner outwardly competing with his “corkscrewy” curls. Their increasing intimacy is powerfully drawn.
The 26 men of the San Francisco Opera Chorus play the “peerless population” of 49ers, “a restless assemblage of 35,000 young men, brim-full of push and energy” – Twain’s words. Two of their number, Clarence and Joe Cannon, drive the opera’s more terrible events. Cannon, unlucky in love, whose girl back home cheats on him, finds solace in the arms of a Chinese prostitute – the eloquently practical Ah Sing – before ultimately attempting to rape the saloon girl Josefa, a Mexican woman and lover of local hotelier Ramón. The subsequent murder and lynching are historical fact, lending a disturbing potency to the opera’s final scene. Throw in Lola Montez, who titillated Californians with her salacious Spider Dance in 1853, and you have a rich mélange full of dramatic possibility.
Sellars has done his groundwork well, providing a poetic and spicy text for Adams, always a master craftsman when setting lyric. The music ranges from soaring narratives extolling life in the high Sierra, through re-tuned miners’ songs pumped up with the threatening energy of football chants, a setting of Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me” speech, and lyrical ballads like Ah Sing’s ravishing “I am red hot under the Wealth Star” and Josefa and Ramón’s intensely moving duet “Ven esta noche, amado”. The 67-strong orchestra includes discreet roles for accordion and guitar with cowbells, almglocken, temple block and whip lending matters an abstracted period atmosphere. It’s a bravura and intricate orchestration and one listen cannot do it full justice. Suffice it to say the score can pulse with enormous power, driven by Adams’ signature snarling brass and sinuous woodwinds, yet pull back to an ethereal string tone to heart-stopping effect. The final miners’ chorus is devastating.
Davone Tines and Julia Bullock in Girls of the Golden West. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera has pulled out the stops for this premiere with a dazzling cast of singers all of whom are – appropriate to the period and place – in their twenties and thirties (Sellars calls them the future of opera and he’s not wrong). It would be hard to imagine a better Dame Shirley than Julia Bullock. Her smoothly energised soprano caresses Adams’ lyrical lines while her immaculate diction ensures not a syllable of Clappe’s memorable words are lost. Not only that, she’s caught the woman of the letters to a tee with just the right degree of hearty good humour offsetting her sense of wonderment and quiet humility in the face of the surrounding majesty of nature. She’s a vixen, dolled up Ellen Terry-like, as Lady Macbeth – the only time she sounds even slightly pushed – and she and Sellars build the relationship with Davóne Tines’ Ned Peters with marvellous sensitivity.
Tines himself – a dignified former slave in Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing at Brooklyn Academy of Music last month – has an even greater chance to shine as Ned Peters and shine he does. Stylishly turned out – Rita Ryack’s minutely observed costumes are a parade all by themselves – he embodies Ned’s cheeky insouciance, but also rises magnificently to the grandeur of the Fourth of July speech, one of the opera’s musical highlights. His chocolate-hued baritone is a thing of great beauty and not inconsiderable heft.
A tenor might easily be daunted by the demands of Joe Cannon – one of the opera’s most fascinating characters. The role is a stretch, requiring a voice with stamina plus a decent smattering of high notes, and Paul Appleby delivers in spades while getting every word across to boot. Despite Cannon’s eventual downslide to become the villain of the piece, he and Sellars really make you care about him early on. Ditto baritone Ryan McKinny who provides a good foil in the role of the increasingly disaffected and bigoted Clarence. Another quality voice of impressive amplitude, he, more than any, stands for the common (white) man in the piece and does so with great energy and clarity of intention.
Hye Jung Lee in Girls of the Golden West. Photo © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
The other ‘Girls’ of this Golden West are headed by Hye Jung Lee as the prostitute Ah Sing and J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia. Both are vocally superb, Lee with her effortless soprano soaring stratospherically around Ah Sing’s melismatic lines and Bridges with her Rolls Royce, earthy mezzo. Ah Sing has the winning pragmatism of the prostitute with a life plan and Lee nails it with a steely charm undercut with pity (though her ultimate rejection, driven out by white miners, could gain from greater dramatic clarity in the writing). Bridges’ Josefa is strong and proud of her aristocratic heritage. Her wrath is terrible, yet the vocal line is never compromised and her final death-defying aria is another musical highpoint. Her Ramón is bass Elliot Madore, singing with resonance and encompassing the dilemma of a proprietor forced to push his employee and lover in front of other men for their sexual arousal. His elegance and dignity hold the stage with commanding grace. San Franciso Ballet Principal Lorena Feijóo pulls off Lola Montez’s saucy Spider Dance with aplomb. A slinky Dance of the Seven Veils-type affair (neatly choreographed by John Heginbotham), it’s also a comedic tour de force with its campy squishing movements and Lola’s regular discoveries of creepy crawlies in all sorts of unexpected places – there’s even a pesticide spray brought in at the end!
David Gropman’s spare, weathered set with its metallic-hued two-dimensional redwoods and oil-slick floor won’t please fans of naturalism – this is no Seattle Ring – but it has more to say about conservationism, another issue lurking just below the surface of the work. In Sellars’ production, props and scene pieces are trundled on and off as artefacts to be seen, appreciated and moved on from, as if to underline it’s the drama that matters, not the window-dressing. Rita Ryack’s glorious costumes rather buck this trend, but then one of Sellars’ other stated aims is to demonstrate that these people weren’t all jeans and check shirts. Regardless of race, there were ample opportunities for style and grace and flair. James F. Ingalls’s lighting design copes well with Sellars’ open-wings philosophy, while Sound Designer Mark Grey effortlessly amplifies both singers and orchestra, while mixing in Adams’s occasional carefully layered sound effects.
The orchestra does sterling work under the precise and energetic baton of another long-time Adams colleague, maestro Grant Gershon. Given the rhythmic complexities of Adams’ writing for instrumentalists, soloists and especially chorus, this was a masterclass in controlled conducting building to all the requisite climaxes and never, ever overwhelming his singers.
The opera has a decent run in San Francisco before moving on to Dallas and, somewhere down the track, Amsterdam. It will be fascinating to see and hear how it beds in later on. Meanwhile, Adams in his 70th birthday year can notch up another compelling work of music drama. Here’s hoping other opera houses realise there’s gold in them thar girls.
John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West is at San Francisco Opera until December 10.