San Francisco Opera’s ‘The Girl of the Golden West’

The golden voices of the Golden West 

Although they are the musical backbone and background of most of the productions at the San Francisco Opera, the opera chorus seldom has the opportunity to be as brilliantly present and as vital a part of an opera’s story and music as it is in Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del West).

In the company’s current production the men’s chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, takes the collective role of the men who inhabit a mining camp during the California gold rush. And as such, the chorus dominates the opening of the opera, portraying the raucousness and severe loneliness of a life that was without feminine embellishments. A life focused solely on the attainment of wealth, a task the gold miners are bent to not merely through greed but more insistently through poverty.

The musical landscape the chorus inhabits is lush, invoked by the orchestra as it seethes and shifts through musical idioms used to create the ambience of the Wild West’s wide open spaces. Maestro Luisotti seems to be enjoying the favors of the opera house’s excellent orchestra. And Puccini’s score, like those of Wagner and Strauss, shows this orchestra at its most gorgeous, even though its stunning music makes hard demands on solo singers in this acoustically challenging house.

After Trevor Scheunemann, as the camp’s minstrel Jake Wallace, sings a lovely, melancholic song of longing for home and lost family, “Che faranno i vecchi miei, là lontano” (What will my old folks do, there far way?), the chorus, punctuated by solos, makes one of the most moving statements of the opera, a richly harmonic transformation of the minstrel’s simple song into a long meditation on loss, achieving something seldom achieved by most choruses: lacing the choral sound with emotional depth and nostalgia. The pianissimo moments were filled with tenderness.

That the chorus was so emotionally convincing made the logic of the closing act convincing, in which Minnie appeals to the miners to show her mercy by freeing her lover from hanging and allowing the two lovers to ride off into a cinematically golden, sun-filled horizon.

In what seems to be a continuing celebration of Merola and Adler program alums—and why not strut them?—Deborah Voigt returned to San Francisco Opera to sing Minnie, the girl of the Golden West. Voigt was terrific, giving Minnie a substantial and therefore more sensual presence in the midst of a male-dominated sonic world. Her rich and very large voice put real punch into the part, and she added to its theatrical color by giving Minnie a matter-of-fact plainness that suited the character’s special kind of innocence.

Tenor Salvatore Licitra was first-rate as Dick Johnson, the thin disguise for the bandit Ramerrez, with a voice that matched Voigt’s in strength and tonal quality. He also has real stage presence, even in a part that requires the taciturnity of the lone cowboy bad boy. The veil of emotional distance was dropped in the passionate last act aria in which he asks his hanging party not to tell Minnie of his ignoble end.

Roberto Frontali made a beautifully dark-voiced and ominous contender for Minnie’s hand as Sheriff Jack Rance. And there were many—too many to name, sadly—wonderful male voices in the smaller roles of roustabouts and would-be lovers for Minnie, including Timothy Mix as Sonora and Steven Cole as Nick.

Director Lorenzo Mariani, who has done both a thoughtful and grand staging of this opera in his SF debut, gets extra points, as do singers Maya Lahyani and Jeremy Milner, for achieving a gracious and lyric presentation of one of the most politically incorrect scenes in opera, when at the opening of the second act Native Americans Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit sing their way through pidgin Italian.

Although La fanciulla del West met with protest at its 1910 New York opening because of Puccini’s exoticism and its inaccurate representations of American culture, this charming production shows how our own wildly multicultural world can celebrate the opera as the expansive and remarkable piece that it is.

And that sweet little horse on which Minnie rides to the rescue deserved special thanks, which Voigt gave by planting a kiss on its soft nose during final bows.

—Jaime Robles

The San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” continues at the War Memorial Opera House through July 2. For tickets and information, call 415-864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com.

Photo: Deborah Voigt (Minnie) with Timothy Mix (Sonora), Matthew O’Neill (Trin), Igor Viera (Happy) and Brian Jadge (Joe) by Cory Weaver.