The operas of John Adams – Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer among them – confront the American self-belief in its nation’s righteousness.
His newest opera, Girls of the Golden West, is no exception. Receiving its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera, it is set during the California Gold Rush, a period romanticised in the similarly titled Puccini opera.
Adams mines a darker vein. His Gold Rush is gritty: the miners spend their hard-won gold on drink, gambling and prostitutes. They watch Lola Montez dance her provocative ‘spider dance’ and throw gold nuggets at touring thespians essaying Macbeth. Meanwhile, violence is rife and justice is served up by mobs. All of this is observed by Dame Shirley, the pen name of adventurer Louise Amelia Clappe, whose letters are the major source for the libretto by director Peter Sellars.
Sellars’ well-chosen texts and Adams’ pulsating music work best in long arias, notably one based on a speech by the African American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass and sung by Ned Peters (Davone Tines), a fugitive slave. The arias come one after another in the second act, but, combined with the episodic framing of the Shirley letters, they lead to a certain narrative inertia, even if the period costumes and a fine bar-room set draw us into this unruly era.
Adams’ score, well played by the San Francisco Opera under Grant Gershon, is his richest and most colourful yet. The vocal accolades go mostly to the female performers: the gleaming soprano of Julia Bullock in the key role of Dame Shirley; Hye Jung Lee, vibrant in the coloratura-in-extremis role of the prostitute Ah Sing and J’Nai Bridges, dignified and warm as Josefa Segovia. With the exception of Ned, the male roles are less sharply drawn, and the sudden violence of miners Clarence (a focused Ryan McKinny) and Joe Cannon (the well-rounded Paul Appleby) is never truly explained.
Adams and Sellars aim to draw parallels between the chaos, racism, and misogyny of the Gold Rush era with our own, but the real treasure of this opera lies the extraordinary personal stories so bound up in this thankfully brief 19th-century era.