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Review: ‘Girls of the Golden West’ gets an Amsterdam remake, more powerful and profound

Review: ‘Girls of the Golden West’ gets an Amsterdam remake, more powerful and profound
Davone Tines, right, in the Dutch National Opera production of John Adams' "Girls of the Golden West." (Ruth Walz)

The John Adams piano concerto that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is premiering this week — “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” — is not the whole story of the Devil and John Adams. The composer has revised his latest opera, “Girls of the Golden West,” for its performances here by the Dutch National Opera, and Satan just got a terrific new tune.

This is hardly a new story with Adams. Despite their greater complexity, operas don’t have musical theater’s advantage of previews. Composers, librettists, singers, cast and crew are expected to get it right opening night. Few operas of ambition throughout history ever have, because the devil may reside in details not yet fully realized.

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Such was the case with “Girls of the Golden West.” An opera of grand scope about the California Gold Rush and what has been buried by history proved a hard sell in San Francisco, where it opened in 2017 two days before Thanksgiving.

It seemed long and fragmented. Audiences struggled with Peter Sellars’ libretto, a patchwork of texts taken from historical sources examining the forgotten roles that women, African Americans, Latinos and Chinese played in what became the groundwork of the modern American economy.

They struggled with a message that reveals to what degree racism plays in the creation of capitalism as we know it. Sellars’ production used cutout props rolled out in front of a bare stage that didn’t go over well, either.

Adams’ score had a sameness on the surface, because of his insistent use of chugging syncopated rhythms. It also took time for the opera to reveal itself, beginning with the mundane and gradually growing profound. The only thing most everyone could agree on was the cast, which was consistently great.

But Adams, and particularly Sellars, have long made it their practice to keep working. And just as was the case with “Doctor Atomic,” “Girls of the Golden West” began at the San Francisco Opera but reached its final version a year later here in Amsterdam.

The revisions don’t appear quite as extensive as had been forecast. Adams has tightened a few passages. He’s added a vengeful, nationalistic chorus at the end of the first act (all devil, all the time) and removed a dance number and aria in the second. He and Sellars have also fiddled with little things throughout in the score, libretto and production.

But it’s the same opera. The same production and team. The same cast and conductor, if a different orchestra, chorus and opera house. Put all these little things together, along with much more rehearsal, and the opera has come into formidable, inescapable focus. There should be no doubt that “Girls of the Golden West” is the most powerful opera of the moment.

Some of this new cogency comes from places you might least expect. San Francisco Opera apparently did not provide enough time to work out James Ingalls’ lighting, and what looked silly in the cramped War Memorial Opera House takes on a sense of magic realism on the massive modern Dutch stage. Although there is some controversy about this, I found the hard-edge sophistication of the Dutch chorus at the performance I heard Tuesday night more potent than the Bay Area singers, who seemed to be fighting their natural instinct to lapse into the style of “Oklahoma!.”

The root of “Girls of the Golden West” is the writings of Dame Shirley, the pen name of Louise Clappe, a Northeasterner who came west with her husband and eloquently chronicled what she saw.

A glorious observer, Dame Shirley arrives and falls in love (at least in Sellars’ supposition) with a recently freed slave. She comes to understand how human nature is a force made by the big and small details of life, with the devil’s hand everywhere present.

San Francisco’s inspired cast, headed by Julia Bullock and Davóne Tines, has gotten more inspired. Sellars has spiced up the action, especially the sex scenes (hey, it’s Amsterdam). And with a year for the opera to sink in, conductor Grant Gershon creates a Wagnerian arc, leading to a devastating sense of purpose by the end.

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In the epilogue of “Girls,” Dame Shirley tries to take a final “bird’s-eye view” of Gold Rush country, leaving us with her last image of “the wonderful and never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California.”

Adams’ longtime sound designer, Mark Grey, is credited in the program with the elegant, understated sound of “Girls.” Grey, however, happens to be a composer in his own right, and his first opera, “Frankenstein,” will be given its premiere Friday night by the Belgian national opera company, La Monnaie. This is the same company that gave the premiere of Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” 28 years ago. It had a later revision as well.

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