Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Life Among the Brutes

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the world premiere of the latest creation from the partnership of composer John Adams with stage director Peter Sellars, who also provided the libretto. The title of the opera is Girls of the Golden West, suggesting an intentional dig at both Giacomo Puccini and David Belasco, whose play provided the basis for the libretto of the opera La fanciulla del West (the girl of the West, usually translated as Belasco’s title, The Girl of the Golden West). Both the commissioning and the production costs were shared with the Dallas Opera and the Dutch National Opera of Amsterdam, which will subsequently present their own performances.

Like Belasco’s play, Adams’ opera is set in the California Gold Rush. The twist in the title refers to three women (thirty years ago no one would have demeaned them by calling them “girls,” but times change in unexpected ways), two of whom are actual historical characters, while the third amounts to a prototype. The primary character is Louise Clappe (soprano Julia Bullock, making her SFO debut), who joined her husband Fayette when he travelled to California to serve as a physician at the Rich Bar mining camp between 1851 and 1852. Over that period Louise sent 23 letters to her sister in Massachusetts, writing under the pen name “Dame Shirley’ (which is how she appears in the cast listing). The other historical character is Josefa Segovia (mezzo J’Nai Bridges), who stabbed a miner who tried to rape her and was summarily hanged for the crime. Soprano Hye Jung Lee portrays the third woman, Ah Sing, a young Chinese, who crossed the Pacific in search of a better life and ended up working as a prostitute.

While these three characters have most of the solo work, the opera is more about the community that is formed around the mining camp where Dame Shirley did her letter-writing; and, in many ways, the male chorus tends to dominate over the individual male character roles, even Ned (bass-baritone Davóne Tines, also making his SFO debut), the mulatto cook whose efforts are richly documented in the “Shirley letters” (as they are generally called). Sellars claims his libretto is “drawn from original sources;” but, if the community formed around one mining camp was his primary setting, it is unclear how accurately or effectively Sellars used his sources. Those of us who attended the all-day symposium that SFO presented at the end of last month probably got a better sense of that community from historian Mark McLaughlin’s contribution to that day’s event.

To borrow an adjective from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (which McLaughlin briefly cited), the community at a mining camp was, first and foremost, brutish. There were very few “ground rules” when it came to staking out a claim and working it, primarily because there was no institutionalization of laws and their enforcement. Segovia was not subjected to all of those routines we have internalized through countless Law & Order episodes because there was no law and barely any order. As might be guessed, most of the community members were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (even if neither Dame Shirley nor Sellars’ libretto has anything to say about religious practices); and any form of “other” is either disregarded as an objectivized source of pleasure (i.e. prostitutes) or a potential threat (Hispanic or Black). As a result, a Fourth of July pageant turns into a White Supremacy rally.

White Supremacists on the march while Josefa Segovia (mezzo J’Nai Bridges) and her partner Ramón (baritone Elliot Madore) worry about their fate (photograph by Stefan Cohen, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Whether Sellars intended his libretto to oblige us to reflect on the current state of our government and the mentality of the electorate that brought us to that state is left as an open question. Sellars has a track record for thinking up scenes for their shock value, rather than their implications in a broader context. Sometimes the shock is both relevant and necessary. Giving equal priority to choruses of “Exiled Palestinians” and “Exiled Jews” at the beginning of The Death of Klinghoffer provoked strong reactions on both sides of that conflict; and, in the arguments that ensued, it seemed as if neither side really got the message. In this case I found it interesting that the issue of “resonance with the present” never came up in any serious way during last month’s symposium.

Unfortunately, there are so many shortcomings to the current production that most of the audiences may not realize that even the potential for such resonances are present. Sellars’ libretto is a grab bag of extremely diverse paraphernalia with very little sense of a narrative that will transport the attentive listener from beginning to end. It is almost as if he is saying, “Look at that!,” each time he conjures up an object or a circumstance. He is consistently enthusiastic; but, after a while (which is a shorter duration than that of the first of the opera’s two acts), one feels the need to shout, “Why are you showing me all this stuff [or another word to that effect]?”

As might be expected, Adams’ music does not fare well in this setting. One encounters many of his familiar textures and quite a few of his characteristically off-beat rhythms. (My wife and I have been working our way through the second Battlestar Galactica series; and it was hard not to think of the irregular “Cylon pulse” that recurs throughout the music composed for those shows.) However, where Adams’ best music always seems to have a well-defined sense of direction, this score just meanders, rather like the river that formed Rich Bar, the setting for the Dame Shirley letters.

Even as an undergraduate, Sellars did not waste any time in establishing himself as an enfant terrible. Well, he’s not an enfant any more. The punch line about Sellars’ current state is too obvious to the reader to require explicit statement!

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