“There was love all around / But I never heard it singing / No, I never heard it at all / Till there was you!” I vividly recall when I first heard Shirley Jones sing these touching, heartfelt lines on the beloved motion picture version of Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man”, when both the devious Professor Harold Hill and the stingy spinster Marion Paroo discover the true meaning of love. Indeed, the musical’s overall message of learning to face up to personal faults and its theme of lovers positively transforming each other for the better continues to touch my heart and the hearts of millions. Still, many may seem surprised to learn that a highly similar and earlier-formulated story exists in the wonderful world of opera: Puccini’s timeless American tale, “Girl of the Golden West.” The first opera to give America stage glory, this predecessor of the hallowed American Western era sparkled and touched a full-house audience at the Lyric Opera of Chicago during its opening night yesterday.

Reminiscent of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood classics, this heartwarming story taking place in California’s epic Gold Rush tells the story of Minnie – the single, pure-of-heart keeper of the Polka Saloon – and Dick Johnson – a handsome outlaw chief in disguise. Like Professor Harold Hill, Johnson’s initial devious goals are thwarted by the discovery of a lovely young lady – Minnie – who, like Paroo, is resigned to a single life. Both are pursued by the thuggish and relentless sheriff, Jack Rance, who is intent on capturing Johnson and marrying Minnie despite the fact he is already married. Yet Minnie remains true to her morals, transforms Johnson through her beautiful self, and succeeds in thwarting the flustered Rance at all turns, emerging “happily ever after” with Johnson in the end. Because of its cleanness and strong plot, I found this story highly engaging. Suspense and love were present at all points, with good always triumphing over evil. I was so drawn into the story that, at many points in the production, I literally felt myself silently weeping in sympathy for both Minnie and Johnson and cheering whenever the thuggish Rance was thwarted. In fact, when the story triumphantly ended with Minnie and Johnson bidding their comrades farewell as they ascended the mountain into the sunrise, I was filled with such joyous rapture that I seriously found myself silently saying, “And they lived happily ever after. The End!” as my parents had done to me as a child during bedtime story hour.

Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt, credit Dan Rest
Marcello Giordani and Deborah Voigt, credit Dan Rest

The Lyric wasted no energy emotionally captivating the audience with everything from weeping violins to lavish, ingeniously-constructed sets. When the curtain first opened to reveal the Polka Saloon – a perfectly life-sized and authentic Western tavern nestled amid the mighty mountains, I immediately felt as if I was truly present in the Wild, Wild West of long ago. Furthermore, I was both surprised and delighted when both the Polka and Minnie’s cabin in Act II opened up during the indoor scenes, thus allowing the audience to see the ensuing action both indoors and outdoors. The lighting and special effects were stellar, with everything from blizzard sounds to falling snow and a glowing orange sunrise brilliantly executed. The most outstanding surprise for me, however, was when Minnie rides into the miner’s camp on a handcar. Having read Marguerite Henry’s novel “White Stallion of Lipizza” in which the Vienna Opera Company borrows one of the Spanish Riding School’s famed white Lipizzaner stallions to be Minnie’s mount in the final scene, I was dreaming that the Lyric’s Minnie – stellarly portrayed by world-renowned, down-to-earth diva Deborah Voigt – would come riding in on a similarly majestic animal, yet the handcar proved an equally ingenious and satisfying solution.

Still, the most gargantuan honors go to the performers themselves. To begin with, Deborah Voigt immediately won the audience’s hearts and sympathy as Minnie, showcasing her strong, signature dramatic voice while simultaneously tempering it to suit the gentle, youthful spirit of her character. Strong yet not overtly feminist, Voigt’s Minnie totally captured the gentle, honest, humble, and pure essence of Puccini’s beloved heroine – who genuinely cares about all around her while keeping her morality as priority. In turn, handsome and rich-voiced Italian tenor Marcello Giordani complemented Voigt’s bold spirit as a stalwart and redemption-seeking Dick Johnson/Ramerrez – an unfortunate victim of life’s circumstances yearning for reform and a better life. Together Voigt and Giordani proved the most affectionate, loyal, and candid couple whose search for morality and true love culminates in a rich reward.

Their vibrant protagonism was deeply contrasted by the deep and masterfully-executed antagonism of Italian baritone Marco Vratogna as the sadistic sheriff Jack Rance. Highly reminiscent of Yul Brynner both in appearance and in acting, Vratogna proved the ultimate villain, dramatically stomping across the stage in arrogance, vengeance, and lust while richly delivering his vocal lines with perfectly matched emotion. Vratogna definitely stole the show at many points in the opera, receiving cascades of enthusiastic laughs and cheers whenever he was thwarted. Vratogna also received further acclaim when he genuinely smiled and proceeded to hug Giordani during curtain call, thus adding to the “happily ever after” atmosphere by giving the illusion that hero and villain had finally reconciled. For the finishing touches, the remaining cast members, Lyric chorus of men, and the company’s orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis once again “filled in the blanks” with regards to this excellent production, delivering all musical lines with tenderness and ire while never overstepping their boundaries under the leading cast members.

In the end, this production of “Girl” is definitely a must-see for any seasoned opera goer or fans of Puccini, Westerns, classical music, or theater. This heartwarming story about love, forgiveness, and seeking redemption will undoubtedly touch the hearts of all who enter the Civic Opera House for a night of good music and a good story. While the somewhat contemporary music initially did not appeal to me at the start of the opera since I was expecting more “Tosca”–like flare from Puccini , the story definitely won my heart as soon as Voigt made her dramatic entrance as pistol-packin’ Minnie. Soon found myself watching the opera as if it was a motion picture, and I soon was engrossed in the music – which seemed almost as if it had been written for a major motion picture. In other words, this opera was definitely a major-scale motion picture – only it was live and sung. Because of its clean plot and touching story, I do not hesitate to recommend this stellar production of Puccini’s opera to opera newcomers or even families with mature children. Indeed, the message that morality and true love lead to prosperity is a timeless adage that should be known to all in this often tumultuous world, and the even deeper message that only such virtues will positively transform others and lead to happy endings will undoubtedly and positively transform those who believe that opera is a "stuffy" and dark art in which antagonists and evil prevail over all that is good and wholesome.