at Lyric Opera

Lyric Opera’s third offering of this season, Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West, was its second attempt to knock our socks off with an operatic star. And Placido Domingo was rather more successful at wowing the audience than was Jessye Norman in Alceste. For those who like operatic spaghetti westerns, this is the only game in town. Few operas are set in the spine-tingling days of the old west, and none have Puccini’s “Weesky per tutti!” yucks.

The Girl of the Golden West has always been a somewhat problematic work, despite 40-odd curtain calls on its opening night in New York in 1910 and certain recent attempts to claim a greater stature for the composition than it has traditionally been accorded. Maybe the critical establishment of yore was too snotty to praise the work because of its rough-and-tumble (and at times comic) American setting, yet it is flawed. Aesthetically, it falls between two stools. When he wrote it, Puccini was still learning his way in a musical language more suited to the portrayal of myth, a language he mastered in Turandot. However, he was still dealing with relatively down-to-earth characters, with everyday instead of mythical motivations. The modes don’t mix. The monumental musical idiom of Turandot is coupled with the characters of an American frontier Tosca. It is as if we were to be confronted with a Hansel und Gretel scored in the verismo manner of Cavalleria rusticana, or Pagliacci scored like Tristan und Isolde–the result is the nagging feeling that there is something not quite appropriate about the work. This is probably the source of the critical admiration of the score’s technical excellence–and of its lack of widespread popularity. At least no one can suppose that this opera’s lack of broad popularity is due to the adventurousness of the score, which, while progressive for its day, seems almost quaint to late-20th-century ears.

Like that monster hit Madame Butterfly, The Girl of the Golden West is based on a play of the same name by the American playwright David Belasco; Puccini had Belasco’s play adapted for the operatic stage by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini. The play gave him an eternal triangle, similar to the one he used in Tosca, to play with, though it must be allowed that Jack Rance at least keeps his bargains and is much more the gentleman than Baron Scarpia. As the story opens, we find Minnie, the chaste owner of the Polka saloon, doing good while doing well. She is immensely popular with the miners, due to her kind treatment of them–she teaches them their letters and so forth–and also to her being the only eligible woman in the six-county area. The villainous Sheriff Rance proposes and is rebuffed, and his humor is not at all improved when a suspicious- looking stranger calling himself Dick Johnson turns up and seems to immediately win Minnie’s attentions. On a hot tip, the miners go off to search for the dreaded bandit Ramerrez, leaving their gold in Minnie’s care. Ramerrez (alias Johnson) is so smitten with Minnie that he chooses not to rob her, but instead makes an assignation with her later that evening in her isolated mountain cabin. Their meeting is rudely interrupted, however, by a knock on the door. Ramerrez hides, and Rance bursts in with the news that a former mistress has fingered Johnson as Ramerrez. After getting rid of Rance, Minnie chews out Ramerrez and then kicks him out into a blizzard. He returns immediately, shot by Rance, and Minnie conceals him in the loft. Rance searches the place but discovers Ramerrez only when blood drips on him from the bandit’s hiding place–one of the show’s most dramatic moments. Desperate, Minnie proposes a poker game for Ramerrez’s liberty. She cheats to win, tucking the aces in her garter. Rance keeps his word and leaves the lovers in peace, but later the miners capture Ramerrez. They are at the point of stringing him up when Minnie arrives with a literal bang and tells the miners that the bandit has seen the light and kissed the Book. Wishy-washy liberals that frontier miners tend to be, they let Ramerrez ride off with Minnie into the sunset.

Like other flawed works, this opera can be pleasing, given the right stage production. Lyric’s revival of Hal Prince’s 1978 production does give the show what it needs to succeed as theater (or at least as melodrama). As Prince did not appear to be at the opening, I assume that Vincent Liotta, listed in the program as assistant to Prince, did most of the legwork in returning the production to life. The stage design and direction were like the proverbial well-oiled machine. There was none of the feeling one often has with opera productions that the director didn’t really know what to do with the bodies once he had them onstage. The sets gave a picturesque old-west feel without being distracting. The saloon seemed homespun enough, and Minnie’s cabin seemed appropriately cramped and unromantic.

As Ramerrez, Placido Domingo did not seem to be putting out all the power of which he is capable–presumably preserving his distinctive voice–but he is still very good indeed. Marilyn Zschau, who sang Minnie a couple times 12 years ago, was complaining of allergies; she sounded a bit harsh but looked terrific. Timothy Noble as Rance certainly looked the part of a rough-and-tumble western lawman, not the sanitized kind from the movies. Noble was not entirely the vocal equal of his antagonist, but he did an acceptable job. One wishes he would put a little more nastiness into his sheriff, as he seemed almost sympathetic at times. The many minor characters called for in the libretto were generally well-handled. Florindo Andreolli’s memorable Nick showed the worth of a seasoned comprimario, while Dimitri Kharitonov’s Sonora was worthy of special mention for its open-voiced clarity. The all-male chorus, comprising the remainder of the miners, held up its end of the show.

The Lyric Orchestra was relatively unobtrusive for this performance, and under the direction of Bruno Bartoletti, kindly refrained from drowning the singers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.