wed 22/11/2017

The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera

The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera

Susan Bullock's Minnie gets her gun, and her man, in Puccini's wackiest melodrama

Susan Bullock's Minnie with her 'boys'All images by Robert Workman for ENO

So now it’s Minnie Get Your Gun from the director who brought us the gobsmackingly inventive Young Vic Annie (as in sharpshooter Oakley, not Little Orphan). Richard Jones’s subversive but still very human take on Irving Berlin discombobulated its American support and never made Broadway; but there’s little here that would rock the steadily progressive Met (home of La fanciulla del West’s 1910 premiere, with Enrico Caruso as “Dick Johnson” aka quickly repentant bandit Ramerrez). Girl should certainly go well in Santa Fe, sharing this production with ENO.

Jones knows better in his maturity than to throw out much of Puccini’s meticulous realistic background to a romantic, even idealistic melodrama; unlike his Annie, but very like his Welsh National Opera Mastersingers, coming to ENO in the spring, there's more than usual fidelity to time and place.  For all the usual pared-down focus of regular Jones collaborator Miriam Buether’s trademark sets and consummate, if this time unobtrusive lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, the locale is most helped by Kelly Rourke’s free translation of a rather good libretto by one Zangarini, itself a fairly faithful rendering of David Belasco’s Wild West play. That means accents to match, excellent from our heroine, needing some toning-down from some of the comprimario roles (Leigh Melrose's Sonora, for one, though he sings as well as ever).

Scene from ENO's Girl of the Golden WestIt’s mostly a man’s world, the Californian mountain misery of homesick miners, with pre-echoes of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead and even Britten’s Billy Budd. But two women hold the trump cards: on stage, the Minnie of Susan Bullock, our most successful Wagnerian soprano export as an in-demand Brünnhilde around the world, playing no-nonsense, golden-hearted Minnie of the Polka Saloon, and in the pit Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who hurls us into Puccini’s whole-tone vortex and takes us by surprise as the lights rapidly dim. Her approach mixes full-bloodedness with pointillist-flecked lyricism very well; only in the second-act crux could I have done with a bit more spring-heeled pace.

This is perhaps the composer’s most elaborately orchestrated and most symphonic score, Debussyan subtlety and Wagnerian oceanic force rolled into one; it relies less on one sweeping melody after another – though several do carry us along - than on the mining of short, malleable motifs. But what Wilson, Jones and the men of the ENO Chorus along with the whole host of smaller parts – ranging from the clarion veteran Graham Clark as bartender Nick (pictured above on the left with Craig Colclough's Rance and Jonathan McGovern's Sid) to young lyric tenor Sam Furness’s voice gleaming occasionally through the textures - make us most aware of within minutes is the dramatic fluctuation between masculine violence and feminine yearning. Perhaps the fact that this is Puccini’s own essential make-up is what grips us so much when nothing is happening other than elaborate set-up.

Peter Auty as Dick Johnson in ENO Girl of the Golden WestThe boys miss their mamas and their pets back home to a wonderful American folksong which Puccini, yielding his usual compositional autonomy, leans on throughout (now, thanks to the supertitles, I’m no longer wondering what "The Old Dog Tray", the title of the song, might mean – our minstrel, George Humphries as a blind, omnipresent Jake Wallace, is singing about the old dog, Tray). But then they’re just as ready to lynch one of their crew for cheating at cards, a situation which will come back to haunt our upright heroine when she dares all for love.

Jones is more subtly stylized than usual in switching the stage mood from still sadness to violent flare-ups. Sure, these guys are sentimental, and so is their beloved Minnie in preaching love and redemption. But she has a convincing reason in one of those many not-quite arias which give us backstory – in this case an always-in-love ma and pa to make her yearn for something good. Sheriff Jack Rance won’t provide it, since he listens only to money; the fugitive bandit passing himself off as newcomer Dick Johnson of Sacramento (Peter Auty, pictured above in Act Two) clearly will, for all his dissembling. Jones beautifully underlines what draws these two together; Bullock and Peter Auty are deeply impressive in their quiet, hopeful moments.

The melodrama piles on potential hokum in a second act which takes its blueprint from the Tosca-Cavaradossi-Scarpia triangle (though it starts piquantly with an understated colloquy between Clare Presland and Jimmy Holiday as the two Native Americans in the opera). Craig Colclough is no overpowering Verdi/Puccini baritone, rather a bass-baritone paradoxically most impressive in his upper register, but that helps keep his Sheriff human. The poker game he plays with Minnie for Ramerrez’s life, divided double-basses thrumming with almost unbearable tension, ends in what’s presented here as a deliberate anti-climax; Minnie cheats and wins, it’s all over in a second.

Scene from ENO Girl of the Golden WestRance’s drunken alienation in Act Three is convincing, too (Colclough pictured right with Nicholas Masters' Ashby), and the lynch-mob chorus, taking place not in the expected big country but all in lines outside the sheriff’s office, duly terrifies, with Lucy Burge's choreography having the men break out into a scary stomp. Auty rises to impressive heroic heights and pulls off the opera’s one hit aria, Bullock hits all the top Cs she needs to even if it’s not always a beautiful sound; neither voice is exactly Italianate or lush, but like Colclough, these lovers ultimately tell the truth and we believe in their right to happiness.

Jones’s coup, a simpler parallel to the separating of the mafia family rooms in his recent Rodelinda, comes at the end; it’s not exactly a ride off into the sunset, nor any drastic alternative, but a stage picture that reflects in its own special way the glowing twilight embers, sadness even, of the epilogue. Quietly impressive, grounded in real human emotions despite a plot that’s often preposterous, this production is as nuanced as Jones’s more outlandish creations, and if in the end we love and respect Puccini the more, that’s a job well done by all concerned.

Quietly impressive, grounded in real human emotions despite a plot that’s often preposterous, this production is as nuanced as Jones’s more outlandish creations

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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