To think of Puccini’s operas is to be transported to the Orient, the Latin Quarter of Paris and to Rome. But when the curtain at the ENO was raised on the scene of a bar in the middle of Goldrush California, the audience stirred in their seats. When a cast of nearly 40 males crowded onto the stage moving with slick gun-slinging choreography and excellent solo performances, the audience were thrilled and carried away by the story. And when Susan Bullock, the ENO’s new Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West made her powerful entrance onto a stage crammed full of hearty male voices, the audience were entranced by her authoritative and formidable voice. Needless to say, this was not your typical Puccini performance. The last ENO performance of this lesser known opera of Puccini’s was over 50 years ago and the performances, direction, set design and general production proved to be well worth the wait.
Richard Jones’s direction introduced a fresh take on the dusty setting of Goldrush California and created nuances that one is surprised to see on an opera stage. For example, the decision to start Puccini’s rapturous opening to the opera with the curtain down but brilliantly illuminated, creating an air of anticipation before the big reveal of the somewhat bare and ever so slightly contemporary bar scenario. The set could have been inspired by the trendy ‘Scandi’ aesthetic of simple lines and bare wood with strip lighting accents. The set changes with each of the three acts and the third set, which acts as the backdrop for the nail biting finale looks like a 3D Hopper painting with a long cuboid Sheriff’s cabin which the audience looks in on as if eavesdropping. The simple yet effective design refreshes the Western soul of the opera and provides a bland enough backdrop for the tumultuous singers and storyline to shine.
Though some think that the opera’s less popular reputation is deserved since Puccini neglected his famous and standalone arias in favour of illuminating the drama of David Belasco’s libretto, much of the music can still sweep one away. (Whether this is due to the excellence of the singers, you will have to decide for yourself!) Personal highlights were the soaring ‘Quello che taceto’ performed by British tenor, Peter Auty, playing the part of Dick Johnson, which could rival most other Puccini arias (and also, it seems, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night from his Phantom of the Opera). Another highlight was the seduction scene between Dick Johnson and Minnie, very amiably and wittily observed by the only other female cast member, Clare Presland.
Yet another original feature was the modernity of the production; the opera was well translated into English by Kelley Rourke and the line ‘would you like a cookie’ was enough to keep this production in the 20th, if not the 21st Century. There is modernity too within Puccini’s opera itself. To have a strong female heroine who has conviction enough to wait for whom she loves (even if he is a good-fer-nothin criminal), and also confidence to stand up to 40+ miners is still a peculiarity in the opera world. Susan Bullock thrives in this role and adds humour and sensitivity to the part – every inch a Thoroughly Modern Minnie.
The production in general is a triumph, and considering that for many of the cast and crew this was a UK debut, one can only see the result as a shining testament to their professionalism and talent. Keri-Lynn Wilson echoes the strong female role in the orchestra in her UK operatic conducting debut and American Craig Colclough makes his European and role debut as the unpleasant and rejected Sheriff Jack Rance. It is also worth noting that both Sonora (Leigh Melrose) and Larkens (Nicholas Crawley) stood out from their strong chorus. The ENO’s The Girl of the Golden West is truly memorable and a thrilling success. Do go see it and avoid the next 50 year wait!
Continues until 1 November, book tickets here.
Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.