Some works are unmistakably connected with their time. I do not think that Girls of the Golden West, John Adams’ last opera, originally created in 2017 in San Francisco and that opened the 2019 edition of the Opera Forward Festival in Amsterdam this week, could have been written at any other time than during Trump’s presidency. It is an utterly dark, pessimistic work that is imprinted by anxiety about the resurgence of white supremacy ideology, unashamed racism and rabid misogyny.

<i>Girls of the Golden West</i> © Ruth Walz
Girls of the Golden West
© Ruth Walz

The genesis of Girls of the Golden West is an intriguing anecdote. Approached by La Scala to stage Puccini’s 1910 “Western” opera La fanciulla del West, director Peter Sellars was inspired to research the history of the mid-19th century Gold Rush in California. He ultimately declined the offer, as the Italian composer’s romanticised imagery did not appeal to him, but presented John Adams with the idea of composing an opera that would depict the history of the Gold Rush more faithfully. The Girls of the Golden West depicts the life of migrants, Americans and from many other parts of the world, seeking fortune in the mining settlement of Rich Bar in the Sierra Nevada. The opera starts off with an incongruously light-footed scene in which the heroine narrates her journey from New England to California on a mule. But the mood darkens very quickly to descend into a story of abuse, racial violence, injustice and murder.

Hye-Jung Lee (Ah Sing) and Ryan McKinny (Clarence King) © Martin Walz
Hye-Jung Lee (Ah Sing) and Ryan McKinny (Clarence King)
© Martin Walz

The libretto is based on documents from the Gold Rush period. It is rich with quotes from Mark Twain, miners’ song lyrics and poems by Latin-American and Chinese immigrants. Its main source however is a collection of letters by “Dame Shirley”, the nom de plume of Louise Amelia Clappe, to her sister. This young woman from New England arrived and settled for several months in Rich Bar in 1851, accompanied by her husband, a doctor. These letters, perhaps unavoidably, give the libretto a distant poise, more narrative than dramatic. Fortunately, Dame Shirley’s texts are here sung by the young American soprano Julia Bullock whose pliable instrument and stylish way with words reveal an ideal storyteller. The other two “girls” in the story are the Chinese prostitute Ah-Sing, sung with stratospheric aplomb by coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee, and the Mexican barmaid Josefa Segovia, interpreted by J’Nai Bridges with regal posture and a dark-hued rich mezzo. Baritone Ryan McKinny is a stentorian, menacing Clarence, and tenor Paul Appleby gives a full-on physical performance as the volatile miner Joe Cannon, singing the character’s jazzy tunes with style. Elliot Madore is a dignified yet wholehearted Ramón. Arguably the most impressive performance from the men’s parts comes from bass-baritone Davóne Tines’ endearing portrayal of the fugitive slave Ned Peters.

J’Nai Bridges (Josefa Segovia) and Elliot Madore (Ramón) © Martin Walz
J’Nai Bridges (Josefa Segovia) and Elliot Madore (Ramón)
© Martin Walz

Peter Sellars’ staging benefits from handsome sets designed by David Gropman (a forest of stylised trunks in the first act and the imposing stump of a truncated sequoia in the second). There are, however, a few odd choices that distract from more than lighten the dark character of the piece. Dragging a life-size mule on wheels onto the stage during the bizarrely incongruous first scene is one of them.

Conductor Grant Gershon leads the excellent Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in the dense, agitated score with gusto. The gushing, pulsating music and jagged rhythms render the tumult and violence of the Gold Rush vividly. The men of the Chorus of Dutch National Opera get to play the menacing mob of Yankee miners and are staggering when, facing the audience, they rage “It’s four long years since I reached this land…”. It is clear where Adams’ sympathies lie when the textures in his music thin and phrases elongate with lyricism, as in Ramón and Josefa’s love duet or Dame Shirley’s reflections. And Ned Peters’ great aria, based on Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech “What to a slave is the 4th of July?” resonates heart-wrenchingly as a modern day speech from the "Black lives matter" movement.

***11