The latest collaboration between John Adams and Peter Sellars opened at San Francisco Opera in November and travels on to Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera.
"Girls of the Golden West is our state and our country two centuries ago and now". So wrote the Los Angeles Times, summing up the fusion of locality and topicality in the new Californian opera by John Adams, recently unveiled in San Francisco. With a title that echoes Puccini’s Gold Rush opera, the new work plays out scenes only a few hundred miles from modern Silicon Valley. Featuring libretto and staging by Peter Sellars, the production saw a cast of emerging star vocalists including Julia Bullock, Davóne Tines and J’Nai Bridges.
Adams and Sellars researched the female and racial perspectives missing from the usual Gold Rush narrative and, as noted by the Financial Times, discovered parallels with our "era that condones the soul-corroding search for wealth. Sellars turned to documents of the period, principally The Shirley Letters" written by Louise Clappe in 1852 that "provide a detailed description of the miners’ life in rural California, which yielded wealth and despair in unequal measure."
Sellars’s favoured approach of assembling a libretto from documentary and existing materials gives an authenticity to the voices in the opera, whether Dame Shirley, the fugitive slave Ned, the Latina Josefa or the Chinese prostitute Ah Sing, though the conscious distancing of action and interaction proved controversial for some reviewers. Positive responses included Limelight magazine which praised Sellars for his "dramatically cohesive and searingly effective libretto… providing a poetic and spicy text for Adams".
"Much of the opera, especially the first act, suggests that Adams is moving in a different direction in his theatre writing. The orchestration seems lighter, the harmonies more transparent. The use of percussion and folk instruments lends a unique quality… Adams is second to none in his word-setting. As in earlier works, Adams’s choral writing finds the composer at his best."
"Act II of Golden West is a juggernaut of cumulative menace – a structure similar to the transfixing countdown in Atomic… choruses of restless miners, already ominous in Act I, become fully demonic… When this braying mob fixes its attention on Josefa, Ned, and other people of color, it recalls the vengeful crowd in The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Adams’s Crucifixion oratorio.
The New Yorker
"…a sweeping tale of the mad quest for fortune… exciting stretches, conducted with crackling energy and colour by Grant Gershon, certainly convey the teeming wildness, racial animosity and lawless violence that roiled the West… Adams has written extraordinary music for this haunting [final] scene – misty, restrained, yet swirling with inner intensity. Poignant and captivating… a bold attempt to write the great California opera."
New York Times
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Photo: Cory Weaver
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