Puccini’s ‘The Girl of the Golden West’ gets a revival

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Michigan Opera Theatre goers are in for a rare treat when Giacomo Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” opens Saturday for four performances at the Detroit Opera House.

The opera, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, is considered one of the Italian composer’s best works, but it’s rarely performed. “The Girl of the Golden West” followed Puccini’s classic and oft-performed “Madame Butterfly.”

Although “The Girl of the Golden West” has been around more than a century, the opera has never been performed in Michigan.

“We are thrilled to offer this unique work for the first time to Detroit audiences,” said David DiChiera, founder of the Michigan Opera Theatre and artistic director. “ ’The Girl of the Golden West’ offers both the beautiful music of Puccini, as well as the exciting setting of the American West.”

The opera, based on an early 20th-century play by David Belasco, is unusual for other reasons, including its setting during the Gold Rush. The three-act opera tells the story of Minnie, a gun-toting, saloon-owning Sunday school teacher as she navigates a love triangle involving a sheriff and an outlaw. Megan Miller and Melissa Citro alternate playing Minnie; Mark Delavan is the sheriff, and Rafael Davila and Jeff Gwaltney alternate as the outlaw.

And as one might expect for a story set in the West, the production includes a cast of ubiquitous characters, including miners, a Pony Express rider, Indians, a traveling camp minstrel and a Wells Fargo agent. Mario Corradi is returning to the Michigan Opera Theatre as director.

“People will cry at ‘La boheme’ or ‘Madame Butterfly’ but I cry at ‘The Girl of the Golden West,’” said Stephen Lord, who is conducting the opera. “The story is about redemption and overcoming adversity. These are themes everyone can relate to.”

“The Girl of the Golden West” is also known for its rich orchestration and features plot-driven arias that keep the audience on the edge of its seat. Audience members might find some of the music familiar; the aria, “Quello che tacete” inspired “Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s famous “Phantom of the Opera.” The Puccini estate sued Lloyd Weber over copyright infringement; the case was settled out of court.

Another unusual feature of “The Girl of the Golden West” is the ending.

“This is not your typical handkerchief-wrangling ending in an opera — no one dies,” Lord said. “It has a happy ending. Like so many other operas, it’s not really an opera about the place. It’s not an opera about the West. It’s about somebody falling in love and it has a conflict that gets resolved. It’s a human story that happens to be set in the West.”

“The Girl of the Golden West” marks Lord’s first engagement since his appointment as principal conductor of the Michigan Opera Theatre. Lord, who is also music director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, will oversee artistic leadership of the Michigan Opera Theatre through the 2018-19 season after DiChiera’s retirement.

Although the story is an American one, the opera is sung in Italian (English subtitles are projected above the stage). Lord said he has seen the opera performed in English for American audiences, but the beauty of the compositions was lost in translation. The effect, he said, was sometimes comical. In performances of the play and various film versions, Minnie often speaks with a “weird, Western twang.”

“When you take Italian music and put it in the Western vernacular, they do not go hand in hand,” he said. “It’s best to perform the opera in the original language.”

Lord had a hand in choosing the opera as part of the Michigan Opera Theatre’s 2016-17 season. He wanted something unusual that would differ from the classics that are often a part of each calendar season.

He has always been especially moved by the opera’s music.

“If the composer is any good, the music sounds heartfelt,” he said. “The words come before the composer writes the music. You have to have poetic words to write poetic music. If the two don’t go hand in hand, it falls apart. We’ve all seen shows on stage where the character laughs and you can tell it’s fake. If the music is really heartfelt, it should all work out.”

It does. And Lord hopes audience members will leave the performance similarly moved by the music and feeling something.

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

‘The Girl of the Golden West’

7:30 p.m. Sat., Wed., Sat.; 2:30 p.m. April 9

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets: $29-$152

(313) 237-7464