Review: ‘Girls of the Golden West,’ a world premiere at SF Opera (***)

by Charles Kruger

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley in John Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West.” Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Girls of the Golden West” continues at the War Memorial Opera House through December 10, 2017. For further information, click here.

It is no surprise that the New York Times wrote that “Girls of the Golden West” is “the most eagerly anticipated new opera of the season.”

It ought to be. Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams is one of the most lauded 20th century opera composers. His opera, “Nixon In China,” which debuted three decades ago continues to be revived by major opera companies and is considered a classic by many. The librettist and director of “Girls of the Golden West” is the equally celebrated theatre and opera director Peter Sellars. And, recently, Adams was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal for  “artistic integrity, collegiality and distinguished service to San Francisco Opera.”

Adams’s score, which is both minimalist and, at several points, accessibly melodic, is forceful and exciting, with some fascinating orchestration which includes many unexpected intruments such as banjos and kazoos. But for all its excitement and many virtuosic performance passages, it lacks variety and is unrelentingly loud and percussive. Over three and a half  hours of performance, it tends to overwhelm.

This would not be a fatal flaw to the production, if the book  were sufficiently engaging, but, unfortunately, it also overwhelms. Although there are many interesting sequences, and some well drawn characters, the book tries to do  everything. Instead of developing any one story, it buzzes about like a hive of bees, landing here and there and trying to be all things to all possible audiences. There is politics at one moment, and a love story at another, but both of  these streams are polluted by an unncessary confusion and cacophony of ideas.

In short, although many of the elements here are quite wonderful, the execution is more than a little heavy handed.

Opera fans who appreciate a minimalist aesthetic will find much to admire in the music, and the singing is certainly admirable, although, as none of the singers are called upon to achieve much variety, the overall effect  is unduly repetitive.

At its best, there are some glorious moments, both musically and dramatically, and the design elements are excellent.

But overall, this unweildy pickaxe of an opera never strikes a vein of gold.

Given the rich history of the gold rush era, it seems that this pedestrian treatment is an opportunity missed.

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Rating:  *** (for an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Girls of the Golden West” a world premiere by John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. Director: Peter Sellars. Conductor: Grant Gershon. Set Designer: David Gropman. Costume Designer: Rita Ryack. Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls. Sound Designer: Mark Grey. Chorus Direcgtor: Ian Robertson. Choregrapher: John Heginbotham. Fight Director: Dave Maier. Associate Set Designer: Reid Thompson. A co-commission and co-production between San Francisco Opera, The Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam. 

Cast:

Dame Shirley: Julia Bullock. Ned Peters. Davóne Tines. Joe Cannon: Paul Appleby. Ah Sing: Hye Jung Lee. Clarence: Ryan McKinny. Josefa Segovia: J’Nai Bridges. Ramón: Elliot Madore. Lola Montez: Lorena Feijóo. 

 

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