A few years ago, when I still had a fist full of dollars, I visited a small mining town between Santa Fe and Albuquerque called Madrid. It was a one-horse town with a single road running through it.
The miners’ shacks had been gentrified by New Mexican hippies strung out on Native American jewellery from the turquoise trail and bad Georgia O’Keefe rip-offs. In the middle of this was a bar called The Mine Shaft (Mancunians of a certain age and orientation can insert their own jokes here) which claimed to have the longest stand-up bar in the State. When the curtain raised on Opera North’s seductive production of The Girl of the Golden West at The Lowry I was immediately transported back to that wooden construction. Its walls were drenched in the broken dreams of hundreds of immigrant miners looking for El Dorado and salvation in a handful of nuggets wrenched from the cold, dark earth of the New World. It was perceptive of Puccini to set his turn of the century, post Butterfly, American opera in the Californian gold rush with its get rich quick optimism and whisky-sodden despair of the European émigré in search of an easy buck.
As the first act opens, we are introduced to the Polka, another gold-rush bleak bar full of thirsty miners called Harry, Happy and Handsome, Sonora, Trin, Sid and Joe who come to bank their daily scratchings, lose at rigged card games, drink cheap whisky and wait for the only gal in town, Minnie (Alwyn Mellor). In fact it starts out a bit like One Bride for Twenty Seven Brothers. It seems that Nick (Bonaventura Bottone), the friendly bartender (and what happened to them in the age of the barista?) has promised Minnie’s hand to more than a few customers in search of a handsome profit, including the brooding sheriff, Jack Rance (Robert Hayward).
With the crack of a pistol shot, Minnie announces her arrival. She is, as the programme notes describe her, a ‘pistol-packing, poker playing, Bible-reading saloon-owner’, she is the girl of the golden west. As the men pine for home and hearth, Minnie consoles them with strong liquor, cheap cigars and the good book. Turning down yet another proposal from Rance, she recounts the deep love that her mother and father had for each other, and it is this singular love that she will give her heart to. It is a moving and memorable aria that displays all the power and range of Mellor’s voice.
Into this rides Dick Johnson (Rafael Rojas) from Sacramento, a stranger in these here parts and suspicious as sin itself. I mean gawdamit he takes water with his whisky! Minnie has seen him before and vouches for his foreign ways. But the camp is rattled by the ongoing manhunt for Ramerrez, a low down, gold stealing, yellow bellyed rattlesnake of a Mexican bandito pursued by a Wells Fargo agent Ashby (Graeme Danby) and his long rider deputies. But Minnie only has eyes for Johnson (no pun intended) and he only has eyes for her, it is love at first shot. She has found her redemption.
At first, as my companion pointed out, it was odd to see a western sung in Italian. The first spaghetti western? Opera Bolognese (thanks Nom)? Or even a spaghetti carabinieri? A pasta pastiche of different genres but it worked. The chorus of the men of the Camp sang as harmoniously as a barber shop quartet as they vied for Minnie’s attention. The set design by Giles Cadle confined the stage to the claustrophobic interior of the saloon with a hint of the winter storm brewing outside as the orchestra under the baton of Richard Farnes huffed and puffed with a mighty gusto. Minnie and Johnson bristled with a lusty passion that would make Lars Von Trier blush.
But all is not as it seems for Johnson is really Ramerrez casing the joint with an eye on the saloon’s safe. He is distracted from his no-good intentions by the ample assets of Minnie’s heaving bosom and the promise of a snog at her cosy cabin. As the snow falls, things do begin to hot up at the cabin as Minnie offers up her prize to Johnson/Ramerrez. But the posse are on his trail (as the old western joke goes, I said ‘posse’!) and Ramerrez is shot by Rance. In a scene worthy of Faust, Minnie and Rance play poker for the soul of the wounded Ramerez. Minnie wins but her love is captured and, in Act 3, to be hung from the rafters of the saloon.
It seems that all is lost for Ramerrez as his bloodied and bruised body awaits a cold and brutal end. But in true ‘Johnny Ringo’ style, Minnie bursts in guns a-blazing to save her man. In a beautiful aria that had me in tears, Minnie reminds the men of the camp of her selfish devotion to their homesick needs and pleads them to spare the life of her true love. She sings that “the best and highest teaching of love is that the very worst of sinners may be redeemed and shall find a way to Paradise”.
As Minnie and Ramerrez bid farewell to the mountains, to California, to the Golden West, I felt that, though I might not be the very worst of sinners, I had seen my own little bit of redemption.
Review by Robert Hamilton
What: The Girl of the Golden West by Giacomo Puccini, Opera North
Where: The Lowry, Salford
More info: http://www.thelowry.com/event/the-girl-of-the-golden-west, http://www.operanorth.co.uk/productions/the-girl-of-the-golden-west-la-fanciulla-del-west