"Girls" brings Wild West to Virginia

If ever an opera deserves to be called a spaghetti western, Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” does. In the best of operatic intentions, where realism doesn’t necessarily need to be, well, really real for enjoyment to take place, Puccini firmly set this wild west saga in California and the Gold Rush era.

With a libretto based on American author David Belasco’s play, who also supplied the makings for “Madama Butterfly,” “Girl” focuses on a mining town of lonely whiskey drinking, card playing miners miles away from home who hope to secure a fortune in the mines, who hang out at the Polka saloon, owned by the only gal in town, Minnie, who rules the hearts of all and whose heart longs to be ruled.

“Girl” is a work that embraces the elements of Puccini’s operas (or most operas for that matter) — love, conflict and resolve. Yet, it tends to find mixed reaction. Back in 1984 when Virginia Opera Association’s then artistic director Peter Mark offered this Nicholas Muni-directed work, he did so fearing people might not accept it. I don’t recall the audience reaction but I remember mine — it was a sensational event that defined all future “Girls” seen on stages until Sunday‘s VOA production in Richmond’s Carpenter Center.

Widely acclaimed as Puccini’s most complete score with touches of Debussy and Richard Strauss running through it, it supplies continuously sumptuous sounds, relying less on show-stopping arias than on an ongoing flow of rich lyrical line. Still, Sunday, despite rousing cheers, a number of empty seats suggests marketability remains an issue.

Those who missed it missed a first-class product. Here, the VOA embraced the work’s essence and delivered a superbly crafted “Girl” that struck all the right notes for success. Shaping that success was veteran stage actress and director Lillian Groag whose concepts and instincts are among the keenest of her peers.

Groag let not a thing pass in this “Girl.” She skillfully used every inch of multi-platformed rough-hewn wood sets largely serving as the saloon and gave her large cast credible stage business that kept things physically moving, even emotionally so during quieter moments. In addition to fine acting, the mining men also delivered one of the VOA’s absolutely strongest singing efforts ever. As for the second act blizzard scene outside Minnie’s cabin, it was magnificent and magical.

Soprano Jill Gardner was a brilliant Minnie. Her voice is a powerful instrument that, combined with her natural ability to act brought the pistol-packing, Bible reading, never-been-kissed character with a heart as good as gold to vivid life. Her’s is one of the strongest, most solid soprano sounds to grace the VOA roster. One can only imagine the dramatic heights of her acclaimed “Tosca.”

Happily, Minnie’s outlaw-turned-redeemed lover Dick Johnson was a fine match. Roger Honeywell’s tenor was bright and resounding, as was his dramatic and emotionally balanced acting. To him fell “Girl’s” only real aria and it was stunningly sung.

Mark Walters, as Sheriff Jack Rance, embodied his character’s conflicted complexities as Johnson’s rival for Minnie’s hand, a man who had to balance love and law, right and wrong. His was a character of desire, demand and drive, one that ultimately suffered defeat with dignity. Walters brought to his role a distinctly rich, rounded baritone that impressed in moments big and small, bold and tender. A superior job.

With a strong cast, amazing sets by John Conklin (originally for the Glimmerglass Festival), wonderful costumes and lighting, and rock solid direction, the strong rendering was capped off by Andrew Bisantz who led the Virginia Symphony through Puccini’s tremendously romantic score with insight, drawing from them passionate, dramatic performances that made this “Girl of the Golden West,” truly golden.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman’s“Murder at the Opera.”

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