Strike it rich! Pickaxe in hand, Clarence (Ryan McKinney) awaits his cue. © Cory Weaver
As the world has long known, the director, occasional librettist, and full-time theatrical provocateur Peter Sellars always has a lot more on his mind than entertainment. As subject matter, he likes events that have turned the world upside down, viewed through prisms of intimate personal experience, from the clashing points of view of outsiders and outcasts, players with their hands on the wheel, and anyone in between. Beginning with Nixon in China (1987), each of his operatic collaborations with the composer John Adams has rung variations on such themes, as does the epic documentary Girls of the Golden West, which had its premiere in San Francisco in late November.
On opening night, a crowd of hundreds showed up early to hear Sellars on the historic, social, and political background of the new opera and its striking pertinence to hot-button issues (racism, feminism, diversity) of the present day. His eye for the telling detail, his ear for the striking phrase, and his sensitivity to long-forgotten real-life personalities shortly to appear onstage—all this made for thrilling listening.
The opera, on the other hand, fell flat. The libretto, by Sellars, follows the recipe he first cooked up for the apocalyptic Doctor Atomic (2005), set at the countdown to the nuclear age. Once again, he serves up book excerpts in place of dialogue and fields narrators in place of living characters. Once again, the dramatic thread—more evident in the synopsis than on the stage—is stretched past the breaking point. But whereas Doctor Atomic pours its elements into a single channel of unrelenting power, Girls of the Golden West scatters its shot this way and that, never taking shape at all. Act 1, which introduces a colorful cast of youthful adventurers with stars in their eyes, resembles an operetta in the form of an oratorio. The second act lurches from nightmare to nightmare, with white racists on the rampage and their Latino targets in a state of paralysis. Yet the evening ends in a blaze of lyricism, as if the horrors had never happened.
Light-hearted yet aglow with serene empathy, the soprano Julia Bullock plays an essayist from the East Coast who calls herself Dame Shirley, evoking in round, ever-shifting vocal colors the quality of life on the last frontier. Doll-like to look at but piercing to the ear, Hye Jung Lee flings herself about as the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing, who loves money and for the most part enjoys her work. The mezzo soprano J'Nai Bridges lends tragic glamour and a somber timbre to the role of Josefa, a proud, defiant Latina convicted of murder for stabbing a rapist in self-defense.
Just friends. Ned (Davóne Tines) and Dame Shirley (Julia Bullock) gallop westward. © Cory Weaver
Tongue-in-cheek title notwithstanding, the boys of the Golden West get equal time. Ryan McKinney, Bayreuth's reigning Amfortas, opens the opera as Clarence, a miner, who in Pindaric text lifted from the immortal American humorist and reporter Mark Twain sings the praises of the "driving, vigorous, restless," all-young, all-male population drawn to California by the prospect of riches. Seemingly the textbook example of the type he is speaking of, Clarence shows other colors later on when he leads the charge against non-whites and rigs the trial against Josefa. Is it meant to be redemptive that it is he who reports her death, complete with those last words of hers that Sellars finds so memorable?
The thankless, stereotypically "minimalist" part of Joe Cannon—Ah Sing's chosen Prince Charming and Josefa's assailant—gives the tenor Paul Appleby little to work with but repetitive fragments of faux folk ballads, yet he throws himself into the assignment body and soul. As Josefa's partner (husband?) Ramón, the baritone Eliot Madore invests more sensuous, romantic writing with a noble resonance. But the finest of the men's parts is Ned, a runaway slave, embodied to perfection by the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. Ned's material ranges from frisky Americana much like Joe Cannon's to a lofty address by the iconic black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Sellars, in his remarks, predicted that this section, from the speech "What to the slave is the Fourth of July?," would soon take its place as a concert excerpt beside Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. It's possible.
Is anyone watching? Lola Montez (Lorena Feijóo) tears up the empty stage in the Spider Dance.© Stefan Cohen
There's electricity though not much to cheer for at the top of Act 2, as we discover Dame Shirley, unlikeliest of Lady Macbeths, in mid performance of Shakespeare Scottish tragedy, tossing a cape and vociferating with expressionistic abandon. Her equally unlikely Macbeth is Clarence, who wears his usual fringed-buckskin jacket and recites the dagger monologue to himself in private. Those who know their Adams may flash on Doctor Atomic, in which a setting of John Donne's Holy Sonnet "Batter my heart, three-personed God" served to bare the hero's soul. This time, the lightning fails to strike.
The theatrical package, directed by Sellars, revels in whimsy and gentle anachronism, with peculiar visual accents of Russian constructivism. On the podium, the hard-working conductor Grant Gershon keeps the trains running on time, and there are lots of them to keep track of.