Arts & Events

GIRLS OF THE GOLDEN WEST: Another Half-Cooked Turkey from John Adams

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday November 26, 2017 - 02:05:00 PM

Two days before Thanksgiving, San Francisco Opera unveiled the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West, the new opera by John Adams it commissioned in partnership with Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera. Whatever one’s expectations might have been, Girls of the Golden West turned out to be a real turkey, a half-cooked one at that. I caught the second performance of this turkey on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and black indeed was my mood after sitting through three and a half hours of this bloated, self-indulgent opera from a composer who merely recycled all his familiar—and often irritating -- musical tics. Bouncy propulsive rhythms repeated endlessly in minimalist fashion and overly percussive orchestration get old fast.  

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: John Adams may be the most over-rated composer in today’s world. To me, his works are built mainly on pretence. They are not meritorious but meretricious; that is to say, they claim to strike a pose of musical innovation and progressive politics, yet endlessly repeat tired formulas of musical minimalism and equivocate on most of the political issues they evoke. And yet, for god only knows what reason, John Adams continues to garner accolades wherever he goes. At the close of the opening night of Girls of the Golden West, John Adams was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal. What this says about our local opera company I hesitate to say. 

Working in tandem again with librettist-director Peter Sellars, the Adams-Sellars team presented in Girls of the Golden West a collage – mish-mash might be a better term – of disjointed scenes involving stick-figure characters drawn from various chronicles of the California Gold Rush days of 1849. The opera opens with a character named Clarence, sung here by bass-baritone Ryan McKinney, who is clad in buckskin, wielding first a gold-miner’s pick, then a rifle which he points ominously at the audience as he sings something to the effect that “Never has the world seen such an assortment of men from all nations gathered together in one place.” Here, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, he sings, there are Mexicans, Chinese, Frenchmen, Chileans, Peruvians, Americans and Native Americans. They’ve all come in search of gold. All these diverse men don’t always get along with one another, however. But that comes later in this overlong Girls of the Golden West. 

What narrative thread there is in this opera is supplied by a character named Dame Shirley, which was the nom de plume of an educated woman from Massachusetts named Louise Clappe, who chronicled the life and landscape of the California mining camps in a series of letters originally published in 1854 in a new literary magazine out of San Francisco, The Pioneer. In the role of Dame Shirley, soprano Julia Bullock had the unwelcome job of singing large chunks of Louise Clappe’s descriptive prose in a drab parlando style. However, while this provides a bit of narrative continuity it also is often irritatingly redundant. When Dame Shirley spends four or five minutes describing the interior of her rustic cabin and another four or five minutes describing the local hotel, the audience may get restless, given that all this time is wasted describing in words what we can see with our eyes in the sets designed by David Gropman.  

Musically, the experience of listening to Girls of the Golden West can be something of a grind. In one long segment in Act I, a journey undertaken by Dame Shirley in a wagon, we are in for a long and bumpy ride. Indeed, John Adams writes music for this wagon ride that recycles his propulsive, repetitive minimalist rhythms and augments them with frequent jerks and bumps that bounce the audience around almost as much as Dame Shirley gets bounced as she rides in the wagon. Later, a male chorus of gold miners sing a bouncy ballad about the life of a gambler who loses his gold at the betting tables in the bars. It’s a simple, rollicking bit of music that includes repeated choruses of da du da du da du. This wordless bit of nonsense epitomizes the music of John Adams, full of pretence yet empty. 

Act I of Girls of the Golden West seemed to go on forever. One small highlight, as it were, was Dame Shirley’s parlando description of watching a small group of Indian women at work gathering acorns. One young girl of about 16, she sings, had a lovely, open smile. Even the prematurely aged older women had fine legs, she observed. Peter Sellars opted to adorn this bit of music with projection of a photograph of a Native American woman by Edward Curtis, but the photograph was neither of a 16 year-old girl nor did it show anything but the unsmiling face of an older Indian woman. In a thoroughly disjointed opera, there was in this instance even a disjointed relationship between what was sung and what was seen.  

One central character was a roistering gold miner named Joe Cannon, sung here by the brassy tenor Paul Appleby. In the course of this opera, Joe repeatedly gets drunk, repeatedly lusts after women, repeatedly gets run out of town and moves on to continue this life of a gold miner. However, a Chinese prostitute named Ah Sing, performed here by Korean-born soprano Hye Jung Lee, takes a liking to Joe and considers him her likely ticket to marriage and respectability. Obviously, this isn’t a wise decision. Musically, Hy Jung Lee’s voice repeatedly shrieks in a way that reminds me of Peking opera sopranos. To our western ears, this is not exactly a pleasant sound.  

Meanwhile, a pair of young Mexican lovers, Ramón and Josefa, work the gambling tables at the hotels. Josefa, a Mexican beauty, is there to attract the men. Ramón is there to deal the cards. When off-duty, they take a walk in the woods. Ramón recalls how nervous he was when first courting Josefa. It’s a tender memory they share about their warm and tender love. Ramón is excellently sung by baritone Elliot Madore. Josefa is beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges.  

To close Act I Dame Shirley sings of a ‘coronation dinner’ prepared for her by Ned Pears, her mulatto wagon-driver cum servant, who affectionately calls her his Queen. There seems to be an erotic element in their relationship, though whether it’s one limited to Dame Shirley’s appreciation of the dignity and grace of this handsome half-breed or goes further than that, one can’t say. And, oh, by the way, Dame Shirley has a husband, named Fayette. He appears in the opera as a complete non-entity who neither says nor sings a word. With a husband like that, what woman wouldn’t feel an erotic attraction to a handsome half-breed like Ned Pears, sung here by bass-baritone Davóne Tines? 

In Act II things get troublesome. The miners leave off work to get drunk in celebration of the Fourth of July. A local theatre company offers Shakespeare’s MacBeth with Dame Shirley as Lady MacBeth. The miners throw money, nuggets and gold dust onstage in appreciation of highbrow culture. The famous dancer Lola Montez, played by Lorena Feijóo, performs a long, tedious “Spider Dance,” aimed at diverting the drunken miners. When the dance is done, the American miners start attacking the Mexicans, Chileans and Peruvians, whom they lump together as ‘Greasers’. A midnight mob of men bearing torches and haranguing foreigners reminds us today of the Charlottesville, Virginia, torchlight mob of Alt Right, Neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan. Then the mob turns on the Chinese, shouting “get out, yellow-skins, get out!”  

Ned Pears, the handsome half-breed, confronts Clarence and sings, “The Fourth of July is yours, not Mine.” Until the hypocrisy of white Americans is ended, he sings, dark-skinned Americans will never feel included. This impassioned song, derived from a speech by anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass, reminds us today of Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. The prejudices of the Gold Rush era are still with us today, this opera reminds us in what may be its single virtue. For his dignified protest, Ned Pears is grabbed by a mob of white miners, who, for the moment, at least, are persuaded not to kill him by Dame Shirley’s pleas for Ned’s life. Nonetheless, Ned is roughly taken away, never to be seen again. 

Joe Cannon now bursts into the cabin of Ramón and Josefa, and at gunpoint takes Josefa away and tries to rape her. She pulls a knife and in self-defense kills Joe. A mob gathers to enact vigilante justice. They beat Ramón mercilessly before Josefa’s eyes, then enact a hasty trial of Josefa. She remains dignified and unrepentant. They condemn her and hang her.  

As Dame Shirley prepares to leave the mining camps for San Francisco, she takes a last fond look at the sublime Sierra Nevada landscape. Julia Bullock beautifully delivers this songful paean of praise to the California natural world, as this tedious, overlong Girls of the Golden West finally comes to a close.