John Adams
John Adams conducts the LA Phil in Girls of the Golden West at Disney Hall in 2023 | Credit: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging

It seems that the operas closest to John Adams’s heart are the ones that have given him the most trouble. Hence The Death of Klinghoffer, whose even-handed treatment of Jews and Palestinians in Act 1 created a controversy that refuses to die, and Girls of the Golden West, which has undergone numerous revisions since its San Francisco Opera premiere in 2017. However, with Nonesuch Records’ issue of the first recording of Girls of the Golden West — taken from 2023 concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic that Adams conducted — we have what may be the definitive version with the composer’s seal on it.

The funny thing is the finished recording is actually a more vivid realization of the work than the live performance that spawned it — and we’re not taking into consideration any possible patch sessions. Heard in person, the performance last year at Disney Hall came off as more oratorio than opera, with the singers performing on book (reading from scores on music stands) and the audience somewhat removed from the emerging drama and its resonances with today.

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Yet the recording regenerates the feeling of hearing a real opera. With a printed libretto and a few stage directions in hand, the theater of the mind is activated, and it’s easy to picture the world of the California Gold Rush miners and the three women who give the opera its title (with apologies to Giacomo Puccini and David Belasco). To spice up the action, the engineers leave in recorded sounds of out-of-control miners cheering, jeering, shouting, and wreaking havoc — the mob working its will. Director Peter Sellars, who compiled the libretto from found 19th-century sources, may have had Silicon Valley tech moguls in mind as modern-day metaphors for the miners, but the crowd noises now conjure to my mind another disturbing comparison — the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

A lot has been cut from the initial version heard in San Francisco — Act 1 is 19 minutes shorter, and Act 2 is 24 minutes shorter. The major revision is the new 3½-minute finale to Act 1, for which Adams wrote the words and music himself in a much more angular, dissonant style than anything in the opera up to this point. This prepares us better for the violence in Act 2 than the original quiet extension of the duet between Ned Peters and Dame Shirley (which resulted in some dragging of the pace at the world premiere). The thread is thus picked up immediately in the beginning of Act 2 with Dame Shirley’s agonized portrayal of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in a play-within-a-play episode.

On the recording, Act 1 still sets the table with a series of disconnected scenes, mostly leaving it to Act 2 to propel the storyline forward. There are pauses on the two CDs between the scenes, adding to the fractured effect. Yet Act 1 contains a lot of the more interesting stylistic detours for Adams, paring down his maximalist instincts of late and giving some characters their own unique flavors in their introductions.

Girls of the Golden West
A scene from the original 2017 production of Girls of the Golden West | Credit: Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera

Adams seems to mimic the tread of the mules carrying Dame Shirley at the opera’s outset (a modernist successor to “On the Trail” from Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite?). Ned’s first song sounds like Igor Stravinsky trying to write a cowboy tune as filtered through the Adams prism, and Joe Cannon’s entry is pure Kurt Weill pastiche circa Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (which also has a gold rush theme, though applied much more cynically). In the new finale, Adams namechecks a whole slew of colorfully named mining towns like Broken Jug, You Bet (which still exists), Hangman’s Noose, and Humpback Slide.

The cast on the recording is the same as that for the San Francisco world premiere, with the exception of mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who here sings the role of Josefa Segovia in English and Spanish. Baritone Davóne Tines powerfully renders Ned’s outraged song “What is this celebration to me?” (taken almost verbatim from Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 Fourth of July oration). Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny is just as impressive in the part-narrating, part-participating role of Clarence King.

John Adams, the LA Phil, and the cast of Girls of the Golden West at Disney Hall in 2023 | Credit: Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging

Tenor Paul Appleby gives Joe a Southern-tinged accent. Baritone Elliot Madore is a sturdy Ramón the card shark. Soprano Julia Bullock shines while maintaining her journalistic distance as Dame Shirley. Coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee’s gorgeous upper range gets quite a workout in her Act 2 feature, “The Ballad of Ah Sing”; her character is jeered for her trouble by the mob. The male voices of the Los Angeles Master Chorale respond with their customary gusto — indeed, the final miners’ chorus makes a big impact on CD — and the LA Phil revels in the score’s incisive orchestral passages.

After one last burst of crowd noise, all is calm, and the opera concludes with a radiantly subtle sheen of sound as Dame Shirley describes the landscape not too far from where Adams has long maintained a cabin. As in several of his operas (right up to the latest one, Antony and Cleopatra), the most deeply felt music again comes at the end — and given Adams’s deep connection with the Sierras, no wonder.