It’s good news that English National Opera has invested in its first ‘new’ production of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West in 50 years. That it’s a less popular work is surprising given the ready accessibility of the same composer’s crowd-pleasers like Tosca and La Boheme.
Equally, the setting of backwoods America during the California Gold Rush and the simple tale of saloon bar hostess Minnie, the sole white woman in a mining community who has never been kissed but makes determinedly unsuitable choices in men ought to make it the Madam Butterfly of Sacramento or — given that the huge all-male chorus of gold prospectors dance with each other — the Butterfly of Brokeback Mountain.
However, this is not Beginners' Opera and anyone expecting a more formalised version of Calamity Jane or Annie Get Your Gun is in for a disappointment. Commissioned for the opening of the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1910, it may be seen as Puccini’s opera for true aficionados — it’s through-composed which means few soaring set-piece melodic arias and a more complex seam of steadily accumulating, eventually unstoppable, deep undercurrent of musical yearning.
Because Minnie’s female intutition takes her to the brink of disaster in her stubborn fidelity to the classic cowboy 'man in the black hat' character of Dick Johnson, it's an expression of the rapture of daring to hope and take a dangerous risk in pursuit of a dream when the opportunity presents itself. Richard Jones's close-focused and contained production is low-key but masterful, and taken at a bold pace under the debuting female baton of Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson, emphasising the richer and stronger passages in the music. One of these is the repeated soaring cadence towards the end of the last act, memories of which may, ahem, have inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night theme for Phantom of the Opera.
The all-male chorus is superb throughout and Susan Bullock — despite an occasionally sudden and shrill fortissimo — is immensely appealing in the title role, most of which doesn't require loud singing. Her warm presence and conviction override everything and have the house eating out of her hand. If, after the gays-out-for-the-miners movie Pride, you want a second fix of dirty underground workers excavating your emotions, head off to the Coliseum ASAP.