To a Californian, there has to be something charming about an opera in which the mysterious stranger who wins the heroine’s heart is a man named Johnson from Sacramento. The Berkeley Opera makes full use of this charm in its production of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, which opened Saturday, with a new English adaptation by David Scott Marley.
The original opera, La Fanciula del West, was based on a 1905 play by David Belasco, who had also written the one-act that was the basis for Madama Butterfly. Puccini saw Belasco’s play in New York in 1907 and fell in love with it, despite, or perhaps because of, his rather poor English. What he had especially loved was the play’s setting—the Wild West.
La Fanciula premiered at the Met in New York on Dec. 10, 1910, directed by Arturo Toscanini and with Enrico Caruso as Johnson. Following La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, the opera was more modern in its musical approach. Although the play was well received, one New York critic wrote that he missed “clearly defined melodic luster, outline, point and fluency.” Moreover, he could hear the influence of Debussy. Horrors.
In fact, the opera has very few of the kind of arias that we associate with late 19th century Italian operas—the lyric and melodic solos that soar through a range of emotional intensities. Rather, the libretto is speech like, almost conversational, with short phrases exchanged, often between a number of singers.
Underneath those lyrics, the music is continuously flowing, impressionistic and atmospheric; the orchestration complex. It’s well suited to an opera whose composer was fascinated by a frontier setting with blizzards and vast stretches of wilderness.
The three-act opera begins in the mining camp of Cloudy Mountain, in the Polka Saloon, where a group of rowdy miners entertain each other with dancing, drinking and gambling amid laughter, loneliness and violence.
All of this is tamed by Minnie, the Girl, who appears to be the only woman in camp and who is the vessel for the men’s longing, as she enacts for them the role of sister, mother and friend. It is around Minnie (Jillian Khuner) that the expectations, intentions and actions of the play revolve.
Minnie, like most of the characters, resembles one of the stock characters of melodrama: the prostitute, or in this case, the saloonkeeper, with a heart of gold. For Minnie’s goal is to “be decent” in the midst of the impure turmoil that is the frontier.
Two men are in love with Minnie. The tolerant and upright Sheriff Rance (Joe Kinyon), who has been pursuing her for some years, and a mysterious stranger Johnson (Pedro Rodelas), newly arrived at the Polka Saloon, who is the disguised outlaw Ramerrez. It’s not hard to figure out which one Minnie will fall in love with.
As predictable as all of this seems, none of the characters turns out to be as black and white as classic melodrama would have them be. Neither man is who he seems: there’s something rancid about the sheriff when he offers Minnie a fortune in the form of a wad of bills “for just one kiss.” On the other hand, in his confession to Minnie, we discover Ramerrez has become an outlaw under a vow of revenge for his ill-used father.
And Minnie, the girl who reads Bible stories to the miners and urges them to “hope for love and fergiveness,” boldly lies and cheats to save the man she loves from the law. For Minnie, despite her humility and craving for decency, carries deep and desperate passions within her.
Part of the challenge in staging this opera has to be to provide enough balance to the sentimentality and stereotypes of the now 100-year-old original. Berkeley Opera has chosen to do this by providing a new libretto and by adding video projection to the scenic design.
The projections proceed, end and act as entreacts to the opera, and are placed to resemble a silent film with newsreels. Beginning the opera as a silent film, complete with imitative typography and explanatory history, signals the story is from a definite milieu while putting a lighter spin on the cornier aspects of the western melodrama; it also allows us to give the artistic director some credit for wit.
Everyone puts in an admirable performance in the production. Jillian Khuner is sweet without being cloying and carries both her character’s modesty and passions with grace, blending good acting with accomplished singing.
Despite some wavering in the upper register, Pedro Rodelas has a lovely tenor voice, with the warmth and sweetness favored by northern Hispanic voices and made large by bel canto singing.
There are two casts: with changes for Minnie—Jillian Khuner (July 21) and Paula Goodman Wilder (July 19 and 23) and Sheriff Rance—Joe Kinyon (July 21) and Torlef Borsting (July 19 and 23).
THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 19; 8 p.m. Friday July 21; 2 p.m Sunday, July 23. Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave. (925) 798-1300.