I like neon yellow lights on the front of a Wild West saloon as much as the next theatre critic, but even Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting and Miriam Buether’s set design isn’t enough to salvage Richard Jones’s reworking of Puccini’s classic but little known opera, The Girl of the Golden West. And whilst Buether’s flash of colour does entice the contemporary in me, the simplicity of each of the three act’s sets just feels rather flat.
Puccini’s distress over Madame Butterfly’s disastrous première in 1904 prompted a three-year break from composing anything else, instead revising past scores (it’s hard to imagine a world in which a beautiful piece such as this is received as anything but perfection – ENO’s revival last year thoroughly illustrated this); it wasn’t until he saw and was impacted by David Belasco’s play of Girl of the Golden West that a change of mind began to take form. This wasn’t without its torturous difficulties however. Work on the opera was plagued by scandals, including a suicide, but eventually work concluded and La Fancuilla del West was finished. The Californian far-west setting is an interesting one, and drastically different from Madam Butterfly – though the latter’s Western influences may prove otherwise. The staging of an opera in such a raw and overpowering geography has something greatly appealing and, personally, I don’t think Jones’s revival really does much to involve the audience in it.
This opera – like many others – is centred on a love story, this time between Minnie, a deeply religious woman, and an old acquaintance, the bandit Ramerrez (disguising Dick Johnson) who has feelings for her. The chemistry is unmistakable. Unfortunately, Sheriff Rance also feels strongly for Minnie and chaos ensues.
Act I’s saloon is, on the face of it, far from intimate, but the chorus’s bellowing and appreciation of Susan Bullock’s matriarch Minnie is comforting. Rooms to the side of the saloon offer more warmth and insight into Minnie’s life away from her ‘brood’. In Act II we enter her home: a small cabin split over two levels. There is falling snow outside that offers a great atmospheric touch, but the third short and final act outside feels flat and void of anything inviting. The return of the chorus adds much to an otherwise spark-less finale.
I so desperately wanted to like this, as I’m a huge fan of ENO in general and have seen some beautiful shows under some stunning talent, but the power I usually feel from them is just not present here. The characters do not make you care for them: I think perhaps this is actually the fault of the script and writing, as opposed to the performances here. Bullock’s Minnie is cracking and she certainly does the best she can. Peter Auty’s Dick Johnson, like Bullock, sings beautifully, as does Craig Colclough’s Jack Rance. I wanted to plunge into the heart of The Girl of the Golden West and seek out something – anything – but instead found dusty old tumbleweed.
The Girl of the Golden West is playing at the London Coliseum until 1 November. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera’s website.
Photo by Robert Workman.