19-07-2010 9-58-20 AM

The Girl Of The Golden West is a shiny, new production from Opera Australia, that seems to be a hive of activity this winter season, especially. They’re coming thick-and-fast. It seems just days ago, for example, I had the pleasure of A Little Night Music and that’s because it was (just days ago).

The Duke, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Billy The Kid, Peckinpah, Eastwood; you name it, they’d all feel very comfortable with La Fanciulla Del West. The very fact of a cowboy opera, in Italian, still brings the odd chuckle, of course. What on earth inspired Giacomo Puccini and librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, to write about the wild west? Well, the play of the same name, by David Belasco, primarily. Belasco, after all, had also written Madama Butterfly, on whose heels The Girl Of The Golden West hotly came. And the fact the opera was commissioned by the New York Met, perhaps? It was the Met’s first-ever world premiere of an opera. Can you imagine it? Toscanini conducted. Caruso sang. It was 1910. A hundred years later, it’s our turn.

It turns out, too, Puccini actually saw Belasco’s play, in New York, in 1907; a couple of years after its debut. This was the time when cinema first flickered into our lives. There’s even footage of Puccini’s visit. And Puccini wasn’t the only one whose imagination was caught by Girl. Cecil B DeMille had designs on it, and turned it into a silent movie.

Director, Nigel Jamieson, has zeroed in on these exciting historical convergences to enrapture us with a multi-faceted, layered production that holds plenty of interest, even beyond the musical drama itself. When love blossoms, a gigantic red rose looms and blooms, far larger than life, superimposed on the set. A cabin in the high Sierra is evoked with video art of a moon in motion, as well as falling snow. It’s all very beautiful; an adult fairytale, oh-so-easy in which to lose oneself. For me, resistance was useless and surrender seductive: I went, in suspended disbelief, with the contrived, utterly unbelievable, but thoroughly enchanting tale.

Although it has its fever-pitched, histrionic moments (it would hardly be opera, otherwise), they are relatively few-and-far-between, relative to Puccini’s other works. Girl, as I shall hereinafter refer to it, is noted for the fact that Puccini had been moved by the work of Debussy and (Richard) Strauss and people who should know tell us the influence is evident. Personally, I find the former’s impact perhaps as much imagined as real, since it’s hard to recall any but the slightest of the dissonances for which that composer’s harmonies were known.

Nonetheless, there is something impressionistic in Girl that finds resonance in Debussy. And there are hints of an experimental approach common to Debussy and Strauss. If you listen carefully, you’re also likely to have a eureka moment, in discerning a recurring phrase borrowed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

What is clearer is that Girl is a very coherent piece of work: exceptionally well-structured; lushly orchestrated; melodically attractive. It’s a wonder it isn’t performed more often, but then, it doesn’t match the conventional notion of what opera should be quite so well; a notion in no small part fostered by Puccini’s other work. If only it weren’t so hopelessly romantic, nostalgic and sentimental and was a little more ‘serious’, it might merit a higher ranking in the canon.

But hopelessly romantic it is: the only girl in town (or so it seems) is courted by men, left, right and centre. She rejects her chief suitor, the sheriff, in deference to a black hat; ‘though she suspects him not. Upon discovering his reputation, she goes on loving him anyway. Hell, they even walk off into the sunset together.

The only girl in town is Minnie, played by Anke Hoppner. Virginity is what you make of it, I s’pose, for, despite the highly unlikely circumstances in which to preserve it, she is so chaste as to have never before been kissed. She is, literally, saving  herself. To be blunt, the characters are a little one-dimensional, but I feel sure Belasco and Puccini (even given, as an Italian, a powerful predisposition towards romance, at any literary cost) saw the humour in what they were doing. And there is a certain amount of grey in Jack Rance (the immensely popular John Wegner), the aging lawman beleaguered by his lustful obsession with Minnie.

There wasn’t a faltering or disappointing vocal to be heard; even the chorus shone. The obvious standouts were the three key characters: Hoppner, as Minnie, universal object of affection; Wegner, as the dapper peacekeeper, Rance; Carlo Barricelli, as the outlaw Dick Johnson (an alias for the more menacing Mexican moniker of Ramerrez). All three have the strength to triumph over the cavernous set and throw their distinctive voices to the very back of the opera theatre (certainly to the middle, where I was very happily stationed). Hoppner and Baricelli, when singing together, are acutely aware of the other and harmonise with flawless equilibrium, while conductor, Arvo Volmer, entices with a shimmering tone from the (make no mistake) great Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.

It’s especially fitting OA has opted for an iconically Californian presentation for this pioneering spaghetti western. When the curtain rose, I’m sure I almost audibly gasped. I think there was some clever, optically illusory design trick involved, which heightened the effect but, even so, the scale (especially depth) of the set is breathtaking. Designed in homage to the classic saloon, it’s all heavy timber, with a pleasing symmetry. Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell has really earned his stripes with this one: it’s surpassing. Zoe Atkinson’s costumes sit superbly within his frameworks: she has outfitted a multicultural assortment of gold rush miners with authenticity; at least if its measure falls somewhere between High Noon and The Shootist. The very cinematic sense of hyper-reality is enhanced by heavy, pale-faced makeup, that serves particularly well in the early scenes, in which lighting designer Phil Lethlean has achieved a superlative sepia. Overseeing all of this, presumably, was visual designer, Scott Otto Anderson.

Just as well this production transpired to be as good as it did. My girlfriend spotted a drag karaoke night at Scruffy Murphy’s. She seemed appeased when I pointed out there was virtually no distinction ‘tween it and opera.

Seriously though, The Girl Of The Golden West is a splendid, accessible, refreshingly undemanding work of art. My tip is to throw a saddle on your trusty steed and ride into town, to catch a glimpse of the root’n’est, toot’n’est floorshow this side of the best little whorehouse in Texas.

The details: The Girl of the Golden West is playing the Opera House Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for seven performances until August 6. Tickets on the Opera Australia website.

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