Audience members who may feel tempted to bail out early on San Francisco Opera’s The Girl of the Golden West should be advised that the best — and briefest — act of this often wayward and wearisome production comes last. In under a half hour, the tenor-with-a-past (Salvatore Licitra) escapes the hangman’s noose and joins his tough-but-innocent golden girl (soprano Deborah Voigt) in their most glorious musical moment together before riding off with her on a wagon into a gilded valley sunset. Sheriff Jack Rance (baritone Roberto Frontali) completes a satisfying dramatic arc as a man torn between law-keeping duty and lustful longing. The all-male chorus chimes in gorgeously. Maurizio Balò’s looming rock-facade set cracks open for a final scenic coup. Plus there’s a horse onstage.
Back at the War Memorial Opera House for the first time in over 30 years, Puccini’s tale of 19th-century mining, highway robbery, homesickness, and romantic pining set in the Sierra Nevada mountains has obvious local appeal. The California setting, complete with references to Sacramento, Wells Fargo, a High Sierra snowstorm, and effete San Franciscans who prefer their whiskey smoothed with water, stirs a measure of hometown pride (and a few affectionate giggles). Thanks to the David Belasco play of the same name that furnished forth the libretto, the composer added rural California to his globe-trotting locales that included Paris (La Bohème), Rome (Tosca), Nagasaki (Madama Butterfly), and Peking (Turandot).
For opera lovers, the leading-role star power of this cast is probably a matter of more pressing concern. Company favorite Voigt is making her debut in a part she will sing next season at the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Licitra’s Dick Johnson, a cover for the character’s criminal name of Ramerrez, is his San Francisco Opera debut.
The winning hand went to him on opening night. In a suave and compelling performance, Licitra used his sumptuous timbre, liquid phrasing, and effortless vocal heft to bring the part to vital musical life. If his acting sometimes went a little static, that may owe more to the inherent challenges of a clunky narrative than to the performer’s dramatic shortcomings.
Voigt, by disappointing contrast, seemed to be struggling for a foothold on Minnie, the mining camp’s bar owner, counselor, and virginal sweetheart, at Wednesday’s performance. While she certainly had some arresting moments, her singing was disjointed, largely charmless, occasionally shrill, and never fully integrated into the creation of a character. Dynamics and register shifts both posed problems. Voigt seemed to be swimming upstream all night against the current of Puccini’s flowing and febrile orchestration.
Conductor Nicola Luisotti left nothing unexplored in the pit. The brasses, woodwinds, and horse-clopping percussion rose again and again from the gush and ebb of a caressing string sound. Wonderful as the orchestral work was in its own right, balance was a recurring issue. Voigt wasn’t the only singer who got towed under by the orchestral tide. Frontali, an impressive Kevin Langan (as the Wells Fargo man Ashby), and Timothy Mix (as Sonora), both had their struggles to be heard.
After an oddly contrived opening that suspended the miners like Cirque du Soleil acrobats against a wall of rippling rock, the first act reached its sweet spot with a choral hymn to the pangs of homesickness. Duane Schuler’s lighting bathed the miners in a soft glow of reminiscent yearning. But then director Lorenzo Mariani couldn’t breathe much life into the meeting of Minnie and Johnson. Their first waltz lacked any suppressed charge. The lighting of their early love scene, with bar lamps uprooted and arranged on the floor, was self-consciously artificial. Broadway fans could be forgiven for thinking of a similar image in The Phantom of the Opera, especially since Andrew Lloyd Webber cadged one of his themes for that show from Puccini’s Golden West score.
That may be a bit of an associative stretch. But it was easy for your mind and attention to wander as Girl continued into its strangely inert second act. The sense of forbidden passion and danger never took hold in Minnie’s mountain cabin (more of a luxury condo), where the lovers met for a romantic snowbound tryst. The production, mounted jointly with Fondazione Teatro Massimo di Palermo and Opère Royal de Wallonie, kicked in with some moving scenery that failed to raise the dramatic stakes.
“Considerable time has passed,” according to the plot synopsis for Act 3. The time that had hung heavily for the first two acts fell away. Capture, salvation, resignation, and redemption came together in a rush at the end. Minnie and her reformed thief seemed part of a bigger story, as a Yosemite-like vista opened ahead of them. The opera ends quietly, but the future for these improbably united lovers, and for a young and combustive California, glows in the distance.