San Francisco Opera presented the world premiere Tuesday evening of John Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West,” a historically accurate, though less-than-forgiving, account of the California’s Gold Rush that nevertheless sparkled with some inspired staging and several nuggets of talent.
Adams, who was presented with the San Francisco Opera Medal following the performance, has not been one to shy from sensitive subject matters — “The Death of Kinghoffer” is a notable example — and “Girls of the Golden West” directly confronts racism and sexism and how the greed of the Gold Rush amplified both.
The primary protagonist for Adams’ opera is Dame Shirley (whose letters are a key source material), portrayed by soprano Julia Bullock, who made an impressive SFO debut. Dramatically, Bullock effectively struck a balance between Dame Shirley’s concerns for the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and her privileged position as a white woman. Her plush voice was vibrant throughout the opera, most notably in her demanding, multiple high C aria at the opening of Act 2.
Dame Shirley is often found in the company of her wagon driver, the recently free slave Ned Peters, portrayed by the powerful bass-baritone Davóne Tines (also making his SFO debut). Tines and Bullock have a delightful duet at the beginning of Act 1 that sets the tone for the more-than-businesslike chemistry between the characters as well as channel an almost Copland-like Western musical flavor. And Tines was at his resonant best in Act 2 when he delivered an aria based on the words of Frederick Douglass from set designer David Gropman’s giant tree stump.
The remaining singing cast members all made strong contributions: bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Clarence expressed the vigor and ambition of the youthful miners who dominated the camps with his rich, big voice; tenor Paul Appleby as the frequently drunk and aggressive miner Joe Cannon nonetheless sounded charming with his bright, clear voice; soprano Hye Jung Lee evoked sympathy with her sweet though sharp voice as the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing, who is in love with Joe; mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges displayed an opulent voice and steely resolve as the Mexican tavern worker Josefa Segovia who defends herself against Joe’s unwanted advances and then suffers retribution at the hands of a mob of miners; and the sonorous baritone Elliot Madore as Josefa’s love interest Ramón.
Also praiseworthy were the ballet dancer Lorena Feijóo, who as Lola Montez was captivating while unfurling her “Spider Dance” atop the tree stump; Ian Robertson’s all-male choristers, who ruled the mining camps with stentorian gusto; and conductor Grant Gershon, who guided the orchestra with the right blend of nuance and power.
Girls of the Golden West
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24, Nov. 29, Dec. 2, Dec. 5 and Dec. 7; 2 p.m. Nov. 26 and Dec. 10
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
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