Ride 'Em, Cowgirl

Brimming with the ingratiating sentiment of a John Ford movie and radiating with the honeyed elegance of an Albert Bierstadt painting, The Girl of the Golden West works its charms gradually, culminating in a touching finale that lends a heartwarming glow to Giacomo Puccini's rough-and-tumble romance. Softly crooning "We'll never meet again, no, nevermore," a stouthearted chorus of California miners tunefully mourns the departure of Minnie, the good and decent pioneer woman each has secretly admired but none has truly known. And even though a sluggish first act and a nagging lack of emotional depth are likely to leave the audience with a similar sense of wistful regret at play's end, the Central City Opera's production is a beautifully designed, competently acted and mostly well-sung effort.

Puccini's 1910 spaghetti Western, which the composer described at the time as "the best opera I have written," is based on David Belasco's melodrama about an 1849 gold rush camp. As the story begins, we're introduced to Jack Rance (Kimm Julian), the local sheriff, and Nick (Jonathan Green), the bartender at the Polka, a popular watering hole and part-time revival hall. Whooping and hollering, small groups of miners order their favorite drinks--straight whiskey is the preferred poison here--and engage in small-stakes card games. When a too-confident slickster cheats in order to win a few dollars more, he finds himself looking down the wrong end of a six-shooter. But when the boys apply the same brand of frontier justice to a cohort of an outlaw named Ramerrez, the Polka's popular owner, Minnie (Pamela South), strides through a set of double doors and disperses the unruly mob by firing her pistol at the ceiling. Without missing a beat, the roughnecks, all of whom inexplicably adore her, cheerfully shout, "Hello, Minnie!" and return to their card-playing, hard-drinking ways.

In due time, the sheriff offers Minnie a fistful of dollars in exchange for her lasting devotion. Gently rebuffing him, Minnie replies, "Real love is something different." Later, Minnie winds up falling for Dick Johnson (Carl Tanner), a high-plains drifter from Sacramento who spends the night at Minnie's cabin during a sudden snowstorm. When the sheriff discovers that Johnson is actually the outlaw Ramerrez, the lawman wounds the fleeing fugitive and informs Minnie of her lover's checkered past. Although she despises Johnson more for having stolen her innocence than for lying to her about his chosen career path, Minnie decides to save the love of her life by challenging the sheriff to a round of winner-takes-all poker. Even though Minnie wins the wager, the miners capture Johnson and, farm implements in hand, set about to lynch him. When Minnie demands Johnson's release, the menfolk, mindful of their abiding affection for her, relent and permit the lovers to depart together. (In most productions, Minnie rides to Johnson's rescue atop a horse and the reunited lovers subsequently canter off into the proverbial sunset. Given Central City's tiny stage, however, the equestrian escapades are understandably left to the imagination.)

The two-and-three-quarter-hour musical drama consists mostly of a series of dovetailing duets and sung-dialogue exchanges, an episodic structure that demands an ensemble treatment instead of the more typical "I'll-try-not-to-look-like-I'm-acting-during your-aria-if-you-promise-not-to-upstage-me-during-my-big-moment" approach. Often the performers succeed in conveying the specificity of character without fragmenting the drama's overall arc. Indeed, director Christopher Mattaliano and his fine cast of singers employ a straightforward approach that mitigates the opera's more extreme episodes of near-laughable sensation. And the performers occasionally exude unbridled feeling during scenes of intense drama, even hitting a few glorious high notes with mounting authority, skill and aplomb.

Tanner, for instance, rises to the occasion during Johnson's moving Act Three aria "Ch'ella mi creda libero e lontano," which is the opera's only stand-alone piece. Artfully investing his portrayal with both abject shame and fatalistic valor, Tanner begs his captors to "let [Minnie] believe I found my way to freedom, seeking that far-off land we used to dream of." A few moments later, the heroic tenor tugs on our heartstrings when, bound, dazed and bleeding, he says of Minnie, "Your love has been my one salvation/Your love has redeemed me, redeemed my soul." Tanner's brave-hearted turn is strongly supported by Julian, who crafts a compelling portrait of the jealous sheriff. And James Bobick is sympathetic as the vacillating Sonora, the bar-room ringleader who, touched by Minnie's eleventh-hour pleading, convinces the miners to abandon their vendetta. As Minnie, South encounters a few pitch problems early on and also strains for some devilish top notes. Moreover, she fails to imbue her character with the kind of charisma and homespun nobility that would prompt a bunch of grubby gold diggers to eschew their hedonistic ways in favor of cultivating platonic feelings for her. Still, the veteran soprano picks up momentum midway through Act One and delivers an affecting, though perplexingly less than endearing, portrayal of the feisty heroine.

The singers' efforts are nicely underscored by conductor Hal France's robust, if sometimes overpowering, orchestra. Furthermore, scenic designer Michael Anania's beautifully realized settings, which use tall, slightly tilting wooden columns evocative of California's towering redwoods, perfectly complement the score's too-few passages of soaring majesty. As tastefully illuminated by David Jacques's lighting design, a backlit doorway in Act One and a simple, paned window in Act Two are all that are needed to suggest the West's luscious sunsets and captivating panoramas. However, on opening night, a temperamental lighting-board computer--perhaps haunted by the ghost of playwright Belasco, who pioneered the use of electric stage lighting at the turn of the last century--periodically fast-forwarded through handfuls of cues in a matter of seconds. It was an unfortunate turn of events that seriously undermined the performers' ability to establish mood or sustain dramatic tension. (Note to CCO honchos: Love the new, roomy, cushiony seats you added in time for the new millennium. Now, what about Y2K?) But all in all, the company manages to achieve a melodic poignancy that, though rendered on a slightly smaller canvas than the composer's more famous works, proves an appealing portrait of life's familiar passions.

The Girl of the Golden West, through August 8 at the Central City Opera House, 200 Eureka Street, Central City, 303-292-6700.


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