Rodney Milnes claims that there is a certain ‘chicken-and-egg’ explanation as to why The Girl of the Golden West is not performed as frequently as many of Puccini’s other operas. Although its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 prompted over fifty curtain calls, the fact that it demands seventeen soloists as well as three substantial sets means that an opera house cannot take it on with the same ease as Tosca or La bohème. As a result, over time it became performed less regularly, which generated the idea that it wasn’t as good as Puccini’s other operas, which led it to being staged even less!
Anyone who has heard the opera, however, will surely dismiss the notion that it is one of Puccini’s lesser works, and it is not necessary to agree with Milnes’ assertion that he ‘composed nothing better’ to be thankful that there is currently a revival of interest in it. Already this year London has been treated to Stephen Barlow’s fresh production at Opera Holland Park, and now Richard Jones’ new version for English National Opera comes to the Coliseum.
As first glance, Jones may not seem to do anything radical with the staging, but what he and set designer Miriam Buether offer proves highly intelligent. Act I’s crowded scene sees the drama frequently cut from one ‘scenario’ to another, meaning that keeping the audience focused on the important element at every moment is no easy task. Jones and Buether’s solution is to ensure that the main Polka saloon does not take up the entire width of the stage so that the action is condensed into one viewable area. Lest this restrict the movement too much, there are two ‘overspill’ areas on either side (one of which contains the all-important safe), while the existence of three large entrances means that the number of people on stage at any one time can swell and recede with immense fluidity.
Minnie’s cabin in Act II only takes up half of the stage’s breadth, and the eye is encouraged to fall upon this one intimate area as black curtains block out anything to the left and right. We are still aware of the torrential weather conditions outside, because snow falls behind the windows, but we are able to focus on the hut as an oasis of warmth, and the setting for heightened passion and drama. Act III places the sheriff’s headquarters close to the front of the stage so that the action external to the building takes place immediately before us. In this way, the crowd frequently confront us en masse by staring outwards, and the wide set allows for the suggestion of a chase by seeing individuals running the length of it before disappearing out of sight.
The cast is strong, and any weaknesses they show are generally put behind them by the end of Act I. The standout performance comes from Susan Bullock as Minnie; it is ultimately her sheer class that shows, but there may also be some natural affinity with the part since, as Milnes argues, Minnie is ‘part barmaid, part schoolmarm, part Valkyrie, and earth-mother to all’! Bullock’s Californian accent is strongly defined without feeling exaggerated, and coupled with a performance in English (an excellent translation from Kelley Rourke) there is a sense in which we are witnessing the opera in its authentic language for the setting.
Bullock’s sound is elegant and her enunciation excellent, and if occasionally when she asserts her voice full throttle it feels a little harsh and unfocused (there are a few moments when the approach does feel a bit too Wagnerian), on far more occasions the resulting sound is truly radiant. Bullock also has immense presence so that after her first iconic entrance she calms the crowd simply by staring at them as she keeps her back to us.
As Ramerrez Peter Auty produces a voluminous, smooth and rounded sound, and if there are occasionally signs of strain these only occur in Act I. His facial expressions and overall persona can feel highly natural, but he also has a tendency to adopt large, unsubtle arm gestures. Nevertheless, his interaction with Bullock in Act II is excellent, and his Act III performance of ‘Che’ella mi’ a definite highlight of the evening. Craig Colclough as Jack Rance is possessed of a rich bass-baritone instrument that is tinged with enough nuances to make the resulting sound very beautiful as opposed to merely dark. In the more minor roles, Nicholas Masters as Ashby Wells, Leigh Melrose as Sonora, George Humphreys as Jake Wallace and Graham Clark as Nick all stand out.
Many ideas have gone into this production and some do perhaps work better than others. When Minnie and Ramerrez depart for their new life they remain stationary as the set rolls back, and the fact that the pair face the receding crowd with their backs to us mirrors Minnie’s first entrance. At the same time, there is something disappointing about Rance exiting the stage once his ‘defeat’ is clear. Whether a production chooses to show him as heart-broken, bitter or magnanimous in defeat he very much needs to be a part of the closing tableau and hence the story’s end. Nevertheless, with some very fine conducting from Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson, making her UK operatic debut, the evening’s highs far outweigh the lows, and make a trip to see Puccini’s most underrated opera extremely worthwhile.