In its third revision since premiering five years ago in San Francisco, John Adams' Girls of the Golden West was presented with the solemnity usually reserved for Bach's Mass in B minor. The singers and the male chorus wore black. The action cues flashed by on the hall's facade in the same font as the subtitles. Nonesuch was in the house, recording it for release later this year. “It’s considerably shorter now," Adams told Classical Voice. "Of course, it’s wonderful to see a full production, but in the past, I’ve had some of my best experiences with limited concert versions.” 

John Adams
© Riccardo Musacchio

With Adams himself meticulous and athletic on the podium, the music hammered away for two acts and two hours and 20 minutes at the themes of human justice that gnaw at the American soul. At various points along the way it felt like the cowboy music in the soundtrack to the Cinerama movie How the West Was Won. The miners' gambling song with men and horns had Weber's Der Freischütz in its blood. A Mahlerian cuckoo chimed in the distance through much of the endgame. 

Even with a reduced string component – only six cellos and four basses – but with plenty of percussion including more than ten pitched gongs, the Los Angeles Philharmonic miraculously kept the orchestral fabric from becoming too monotonous too often, which enabled the variations in expressive intensity, such as they were, to best make their subtle, relentless effect. 

Julia Bullock brilliantly reprised the role she created in 2017, with broad range and depth, and led the cast with her energy and spirit and zest. The entire cast was passionately stentorian and filled the hall with a series of spectacular tours de force. Hey Jung Lee's “Song of Ah Sing” soaring into the stratosphere in Act 2 triggered the opera into action. Dame Shirley's lament was Bullock's own uniquely sad creation, Daniela Mack set Josefa's lullaby as a jewel against the music's irregular rhythms. In “Blessed be the night of the married man”, Elliot Madore and the first bassoon made beautiful music together. Paul Appleby gave Joe Cannon all the intensity he had to give. The men of Grant Gershon's Los Angeles Master Chorale contributed mightily. The audience definitely felt its emotional impact. 

The stupendous cast, orchestra and chorus, the hall's audiophile sound, coupled with the social activism of both the opera's book and its musical overtones gives Girls of the Golden West a voice with which to respond to events happening daily that are tearing the country apart. The story, summarized by Ned's “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine!” is a sobering look back to Dos Passos and Steinbeck as, just six years after it was finished, the operatic times may be calling for something more.