A milestone in contemporary opera – John Adams conducts Girls of the Golden West with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, featuring a stupendous cast

John Adams on the podium. © Riccardo Musacchio

To those who might have wondered what it would have been like to take notes from a musical conversation between Mozart, Berlioz, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein, John Adams’s gripping Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West (2015-17/2022) provides the most splendid answer. Given in two ravishing performances over the weekend by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the composer, joined by no less than six members of the stupendous original cast of the 2017 San Francisco Opera world premiere, alongside the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and the formidable tenors and basses of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the newly-revised version of Girls of the Golden West finds Adams at his most inspired.

In his riveting setting of a libretto compiled from various original Gold Rush sources by Peter Sellars, Adams comes up with an extraordinary take on the American opera, one absorbing the dramatic vividness of Mozart and Berlioz, the wittiness of the Gershwins as well as the rhythmic funkiness of Ellington and Bernstein. However, that is not to say that Adams’s score would actually sound like any of their music, for Girls of the Golden West is quintessential John Adams, with its dexterously idiomatic vocal lines, ever-changing meters, biting harmonies and virtuoso orchestration.

Cast in two acts, the libretto is based on several first-hand accounts of the Gold Rush era, most notably the letters of Louise Clappe, a young woman from Massachusetts, written under her pen-name Dame Shirley, alongside those by Ramón Gil Navarro and Frederick Douglass, encompassing the viewpoints of various ethnic minorities. Woven around them, excerpts from Mark Twain and William Shakespeare provide further insight. Yet another layer comes from songs of the era, number of which served as the source for the lyrics in some of the opera’s key scenes.

Probably the most striking aspect of Girls of the Golden West lies in its topicality. Not only are the stories from the 1850s told here crowded with #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, but they also bear harrowing pre-echoes of January 6th Capitol attack, shedding light to the deep-etched roots of present-day Trumpisms. Juxtaposed with scenes of empowerment, love, comedy and sheer splendor of the Californian wilderness, the opera is a truly powerful affair.

Since its November 2017 premiere at the War Memorial Opera House, Adams has revised his score twice. For its European premiere at the Dutch National Opera in March 2019, the composer wrote a new closing for the first act, bridging its trajectory more firmly to the dramatic landscape of the second half of the opera. In course of the second series of revisions, carried out in the fall of 2022, more extensive changes were made, as the composer cut over thirty minutes of material from the score, sharpening the narrative focus, without sacrificing the opera’s multi-faceted feast of musical idioms.

Although there were some really juicy numbers among the material that ended up on the editing room floor, including a scene depicting the sorry lot of a taxman, the losses are compensated manifold by the intensity of the end result. Surely, many will miss Lola Montez and her Spider Dance, already cut in the 2018 revision and given new life as an orchestral standalone, premiered under Marin Alsop, but in the end, it is the vividness of the dramatic curve that matters the most.

And vividness is found in abundance in the new, definitive version of the opera, or the composer’s cut, so to speak. Caught on microphones for a world premiere album release by Nonesuch, the weekend’s performances served the opera beautifully, with the cast, the chorus, the orchestra and the composer all at the top of their game. Put together in less than six days of intensive rehearsals, Girls of the Golden West was a feast of music-making at the highest level.

The first scene opens with Clarence, a miner sung by the awe-inspiring bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, presenting, in the words of Mark Twain, the often-accounted narrative of the Gold Rush as a celebration of the masculine enterprise, the survival of the fittest. However, his version is soon juxtaposed with soprano Julia Bullock’s incredible portrayal of Dame Shirley, whose poignant, ever-attentive and uncompromisingly compassionate observations serve as the conscience of the opera.

In addition, we are introduced to Ned Peters, a cowboy with enslaved past, given in commanding stage personification by the bass-baritone Davóne Tines. From the outset, one is struck by Adams’s pristine musical characterization, in which each role are given their own identities, developed organically throughout the two-act arch.

Scene two gives us Joe Cannon, the mediocre white guy of the show, sung with unabashed toxic masculinity by the marvelous tenor Paul Appleby. An all-around loser based on a Gold Rush era ballad, Joe repeated failures begin as comedy and end in tragedy, culminating in an attempted rape, leading to his death and resulting in the hideous ceremony of show trial and hanging of his victim, Josefa Segovia, a real-life person, sung with shattering honesty by mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack.

Gathered at the Rich Bar of the Empire Hotel in Plumas County in the Sierras, the cast also includes Ah Sing, a Chinese prostitute mastering her metier, while seeking a way out of it. Perhaps unexpectedly, she is to become genuinely loved by Joe, of all people, as manifested by his actions in her defense in the second act, adding marvelously to the appealing complexity of the characters involved.

And last but lot least, there’s Elliot Madore’s splendidly contemplative Ramón, a Mexican card dealer and bartender at the Empire, as well as a keen observer of human character. The love between Josefa and Ramón gives rise to some of the most sensuous music in the opera, presented in scenes of fleeting intimacy in the midst of all the flamboyance and roughness of the Rich Bar.

Throughout the opera, there are terrific choral numbers, formidably sung by twenty eight members of the LA Master Chorale, in which the miners appear, first as Californian incarnations of the drinkers from Auerbach’s Cellar in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1845-46) or those gambling in Venice in Bernstein’s Candide (1956), and eventually as the operatic version of the blood-thirsty mob caught on television cameras storming the Capitol in January 2021.

In the second act, two commanding apologias are heard, presenting the audience with some of the most gripping words and music in the opera. In the third scene, Ned addresses the all-white-male panel of miners with his powerful The Fourth of July is yours, not mine speech, leading to his arrest and banishment from the town. In the culminating fifth scene, Josefa faces the crowd with her haunting You would have me immaculate mockery. On both occasions, their words are set to the most powerful music imaginable, written on page with dead-honest insight by Adams.

Closing with a reflective epilogue, the opera’s final moments are given to Julia Bullock and the orchestra, as Dame Shirley, on her last day at Rich Bar, contemplates the strange mixture of brutality and beauty of the life in the Sierras. Here, the music adopts that wondrously ambiguous, translucent tone found in late Sibelius, as the vocal line floats through elusive harmonic clouds, eventually landing on the words ”fathomless beauty”, gently repeated, before evaporating into silence.

Scored for an orchestra of triple winds and brass, apart from five horns, an array of percussion including tuned cowbells, bass drums, whip, temple block, snare drum, crash cymbal and tam-tam, accordion, piano, guitar and circa forty string players, the instrumental writing in Girls of the Golden West is awash with catchy and ever-so-tricky rhythms, poignant harmonies and inspired melodic lines. Flawlessly mastered by the wonderful musicians of the LA Phil, vividly conducted by the composer, the orchestral fabric was flooded with ravishing color, with the expressive palette enriched by piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet and double bassoon, not forgetting texture modulations contributed by guitar and accordion.

Fine-tuned by Mark Grey’s sublime sound design, including refined amplification and some pre-recorded ambiance, the LA Phil production is to be counted among the milestones in contemporary music. For Girls of the Golden West is the opera of our time, and it needs to be heard far and wide. Thanks to the forthcoming Nonesuch recording, the pristine performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall will be sounded to audiences worldwide.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

John Adams, conductor

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Grant Gershon, artistic director

Julia Bullock, soprano (Dame Shirley)

Davóne Tines, bass-baritone (Ned Peters)

Paul Appleby, tenor (Joe Cannon)

Hye Jung Lee, soprano (Ah Sing)

Elliot Madore, baritone (Ramón)

Daniela Mack, mezzo-soprano (Joseva Segovia)

Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone (Clarence)

John Adams: Girls of the Golden West (2015-17/2022) – Opera in two acts. Libretto compiled from original sources by Peter Sellars

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, Californa

Friday 27 January 8 pm and Sunday 29 January 2 pm

© Jari Kallio

In loving memory of my father Esko Kallio (1939-2022), who would have enjoyed a lot of the music in this opera

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