Review "The Girl of the Golden West": Shimmering Nugget of Riches

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

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At the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Composed by Giacomo Puccini
Three Acts performed in Italian with English titles
Libretto by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini
Based on David Belasco’s play “The Girl of the Golden West”
Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis
Stage direction by Vincent Liotta
January 26th & 29th and February 18th at 2pm
February 4th, 9th, 12th, 15th & 21st at 7:30
Buy Tickets
Running Time:  Three hours with two intermissions of fifteen minutes each

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

In 1849, the trendy get-rich-quick scheme drove tens of thousands of men to California.  Boomtowns sprung out of mining camps. Disagreements over whiskey, gold or a woman were settled at gun point.  The Gold Rush was a rugged era of Americana where greed and corruption were punishable by hanging… no court system required, guilty as charged!  Lyric Opera of Chicago presents THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST, a Puccini three act Italian opera based on the 1905 play “The Girl of the Golden West.”  The local saloon is owned by Minnie.  Without much female competition, Minnie is the miners’ darling.  She supplies the liquor and the nurturing required in the unruly, lonely and deadly mining world.   Everybody loves Minnie!  As proof of their adoration, the guys trust her to guard their gold. When a mysterious stranger arrives in town, Minnie is captivated.  Is he who he says he is?  Or is he romancing the nugget?  The Lyric Opera’s THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST is a one-of-a-kind romantic western opera.

01. Act 1, Girl of the Golden West RST_9765, c. Dan Rest.jpg

Under the energetic and enthusiastic baton of Sir Andrew Davis, the Puccini notes are powerful, lush musicality.  There is a reason people want love to be like it is in a Puccini opera.  His music crescendos with heart-filled passion and emotional enchantment.   Without speaking Italian or reading subtitles, Puccini duets are always understood for the love poignancy of the music… luckily for this production. Davis’ zealous actualization often times over-powers the singers, especially in Act 1.  Despite a fairly large male chorus and strong principals, the vocal projections are overshadowed by the commanding musical presence of the band.  When the full chorus returns in Act 3, a better balance allow the chorus verses orchestra showdowns to end in a draw:  Guns-1 Instruments -1.  

In the lead, Deborah Voigt (Minnie) IS the miners’ darling.  Voigt works the men with seasoned flirtation denial.  Gal shoots whiskey or a pistol with sassy fervor.  Cue Marcello Giordani (Johnson) and Voigt puddles with a dreamy vulnerability.  Their duet ‘Mister Johnson, siete rimasto indietro’ is a charming courtship dance.  Later, they each vehemently plead for the other’s interest in separate and equally passionate arias.  Out of the delightful chemistry between Viogt and Giordani is a not-so-innocent, enamored love affair.  Playing the jilted wanna-be-lover, Marco Vratogna (Rance) is wonderfully sinister as the married sheriff. 

09. Act 3, Girl of the Golden West DAN_5250 c. Dan Rest.jpg

For Americans, there is an initial element of adjustment in the first scene.  Sure, it looks like an authentic western with a saloon of miners drinking whiskey and playing cards in between scuffles.  But from the first Italian word sung, you know this ain’t your great-great-great-great grand daddy’s gold rush.  Listening to any western in the beautiful Italian language, true grit erodes for a more polished sophistication.  Still, THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST is a shimmering nugget of riches.  It will have you wishing that love always came with a Puccini soundtrack.

A man with limited operatic experience but a keen sense of hearing, Joshua Volkers picked up on the Andrew Lloyd Weber ‘inspiration’ for “Phantom of the Opera.”   A recurring melody of this 1910 opera has been a legal dispute for the 1986 musical’s song, ‘The Music of the Night.’

Production Photography by Dan Rest.

With the messy construction on Wacker, it’s better to plan an evening that doesn’t require a close to curtain arrival.  We decide to dine IN the opera house at the third floor’s café.  Florian Bistro is adorned with Lyric operatic history and exclusive to performance ticket holders.  The bistro opens at 6pm for the 7:30pm show.  Anticipating the initial rush hits at 6pm, we go for the gold at 6:40pm.  My Florian experience is that the staff is efficient and always focused on curtain time.  The conscientious host offers us menus to ensure order expediency.   Despite a line, we sit within five minutes.  It’s 6:45.  We wait for ten minutes for a server to take interest.  When he finally arrives, we easily spout out our drink and meal order in seconds.  Basically, we’re both getting ham and cheese sandwiches, a glass of champagne and a glass of Malbec.  The server fumbles with the hand-held device taking excessive time to enter in and clarify our requests.  It’s easy for me to understand how 1840 negotiations were more impactful at gun point.  Another lull of inactivity and our drinks arrive a minute before our food.   The Florian menu is simple and small to ensure the timing is quick.  The Bistro is clearing out and our server drops off our bill.  We indicate we want dessert.  Once again, the entry of the request is painfully slow.  If not a gun, I wish I had a Florian ap and could just text in my request to the kitchen.  The food runner brings out the chocolate decadency in moments.  The coffee arrives via our server after a delay.  Without the patience to request it, I get cream and sugar from a vacated table.  With five minutes to spare, we walk down the staircase and into the majestic Lyric Opera experience.  Pure gold!     

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