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At the Los Angeles Opera, Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West" is an evening of fun, excitement, and passion as the Italian composer who never set foot in this country, creates the American Old West of his imagination. He did a pretty good job of it, too. Signs warn that Gian-Carlo Del Monaco's production contains cigar smoke, gun fire, open flames, and live animals. It has all of this and more. Michael Scott's sets and costumes are spectacular. They look like the California gold rush country of the period, and that's much like it is now, except everything's been restored to current tourist standards. These sets are the real thing, and the miners look like they've stepped straight out of the period. Rough, but good men, as Minnie calls them.

This is one of the operas where the more I see it, the more I want to see it. Puccini doesn't always strike me that way. This one is different. It has it's musical and vocal highlights, but like Wagner, it's not an opera where you walk away humming favorite arias and vignettes. It's probably the most cinematic of the composer's works, and probably the most Wagnerian. The orchestral writing is central, and propels the action of the drama, rather than serving as a vehicle for the singers. The singers are reduced more to actors than in any other of Puccini's operas.

This is a story that could really have happened just the way he portrayed it, and quite possibly did in some form or other. The theme of redemption of the outlaw, Dick Johnson, through the love of Minnie, also strikes a chord. These are common, hard-working people, who live tough lives. Johnson tells us that when his Father died, his only inheritance to support his family was a band of outlaws. He wanted to lead an honest life, still does, but that was his fate. Minnie acknowledges it when she plays poker with Jack Rance for Johnson's life and herself when she says, "He's an outlaw, you're a gambler, and I'm a saloon keeper who makes a living off whiskey and gold." All of these people would be someone else if they could, but like the rest of us, they are what they are, and they make the best of it. This is the real beauty of "Girl of the Golden West."

The sets are straight out of gold country. The saloon is a dark, dreary, but lively place. This is the center of the miners' lives. The tension between Jack Rance and Minnie, and Rance and Johnson is evident from the start. Rance is infatuated with Minnie, but she wants no part of it. When Johnson shows up, she remembers him from before, and they melt before each other. He doesn't steal her gold, but does steal her heart.

The Second Act is at Minnie's cabin. It's the real thing, with rocky hills outside, and a scrub pine or two. The terrain is like the Sierras, and the whole feel captures everything about it. It starts snowing, and when she and Johnson start expressing their love, the snow and fire make the whole scene irresistible. The Sheriff and his men burst in, though, and it goes down from there, until the card game with Rance, which Minnie wins by cheating.

The Third Act is an old town with ramshackle buildings and a lot of broken windows and loose boards. When Johnson is dragged in, the miners kick, beat, and berate him. He sings his final aria where he says not to tell Minnie how he died. As they prepare to hang him, she rushes in and climbs up on the platform with him, threatening everyone with her gun. Rance jumps up on a wagon, and the three of them form a triangle of opposition to each other, above the confusion of the crowd below. This is one of the most dramatic staging effects of the evening.

The cast is stellar from top to bottom. Domingo is Domingo as Dick Johnson. He's strong and passionate with a commanding presence, when he faces off against Rance in the saloon. Alone with Minnie, and at the end, he's the tender romantic, and oh, that voice. Catherine Malfitano's Minnie is patient and fun. She's like everyone's sister. She reads verses from the Bible to the miners, and teaches them "The supreme truth of love." She's also tough as nails, and if they did want to rob her or anything else bad, they would get a fight to the death, and there's simply no mistake about that. Wolfgang Brendel's Jack Rance is nothing but venomous malice, from the moment the curtain rises, with him sitting alone brooding in the corner of the saloon, until he picks up Minnie's gun after Johnson is freed.

This is, perhaps, Puccini's most sensually lyrical score, at least that's how Australian conductor Simone Young reads it, and it becomes a work of pure beauty. It's a musical tapestry, rooted in the orchestral writing, that uses bold harmonics with galloping rhythms to portray the Old West setting, and the life of the miners, who work hard and play hard to relax. She gets every drop of tenderness from the Act Two love duet, the drama of the hanging, and all the subtleties and nuances in between. With these performances, Simone Young becomes the first woman to conduct the L.A. Opera.

"The Girl of the Golden West" is a great story in a great production, and is sure to please. It continues in The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at The L.A. Music Center September 10, 13, and 16.

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