There is something faintly ridiculous — especially to a California audience — about “The Girl of the Golden West”: At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera opened the Los Angeles Opera’s 17th season, the chorus’ intonations of “Hallo, Minnie!” and “Meester Johnson di Sacramento” drew the inevitable guffaws (mingled, of course, with a cheer or two) from a large and ostensibly happy crowd. Neither David Belasco’s heartwarming play of 1905 nor the Puccini version — hard-hearted bandit in Gold Rush times is redeemed by love — has much to tell a contemporary audience; you can say that about most operatic plots, of course, but the immediacy of the references in this case compounds the problem.
Compounding the problem further is this production’s troubled history. Created for L’Opera de Nice by Gian-Carlo del Monaco — who had been slated to re-create his work in Los Angeles — the production was cast adrift after del Monaco’s temper tantrums during last season’s “Turandot” failed to endear him to the local management. These outbursts — which reputedly included a certain degree of physical violence — merely added the L.A. Opera to the growing list of companies at which the apparently untamable del Monaco has become persona non grata.
Some fast rescue work by directors Elena Kalabakos and Vera Calabria more or less saved the day; still, there were moments that called for averting the eye. The spectacle of grizzled 49ers galumphing merrily across Michael Scott’s oversized sets to dance steps suspiciously reminiscent of a Parisian can-can detracted from the purported seriousness of the hyped-up sentimentality of Puccini’s score. (Add to the anachronisms: the portrait of the bearded Lincoln over the bar of Minnie’s “Polka” Saloon, even though the Gold-Rush setting predates both the Lincoln presidency and his beard by 10 years.)
Puccini’s spaghetti Western epic has its admirers, but even they are hard-put to find a single take-home tune to match the lyric glories of his “Boheme” or “Butterfly.” The work makes it, if at all, on sheer decibel power.
Catherine Malfitano was the noble Minnie; Placido Domingo, the fearsome bandit Ramerrez (aka “Dick Johnson”) she sets out to tame. (Luis Lima takes over the role in the final two of seven scheduled performances.) Wolfgang Brendel sang the already-married Sheriff (no, “Sceriffo”) who hankers after both Minnie’s hand and Ramerrez’s scalp. All sang at commendable high volume, which is the only pathway through Puccini’s massive orchestra; all seemed a little long in the tooth for the plans of action they had been allotted.
Australian-born conductor Simone Young, in her L.A. Opera debut — and, indeed, as the first woman to conduct with the company — didn’t quite hold matters in hand in a rather bland first act but seemed to tighten her hold as the evening wore on. Even so, the three-hour evening did wear on.