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posted October 25, 2014

Going West

Here are five responses to Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West at English National Opera yesterday.

1. ENO’s The Girl of the Golden West was perfectly good: excellent singing from leads and chorus alike, a straightforward (if silly in places) story and some predictably soaring melodies. It was a charming night out, enjoyable, unthreatening: nice. But it put me in mind of an old Alexei Sayle routine about Dire Straits: ‘People say: I love Dire Straits, they’re really nice. Nice! NICE! That’s something you say about biscuits. Pop stars shouldn’t be nice. They should be smelly and ugly. They shouldn’t be nice.’ Which is a bit how I feel about opera: opera shouldn’t, of all things, be nice. Opera is expensive and time consuming to stage and watch and should offer more than a charming night out. Wozzeck isn’t ‘nice’. Don Giovanni isn’t ‘nice’. Boris Godunov isn’t ‘nice’. Le Grand Macabre certainly isn’t ‘nice’. Give me something smelly and ugly every time; give me something with edge; give me something that makes me feel uncomfortable; give me something that I’m not sure if I like or not. But not just something that is the operatic equivalent of Dire Straits.

2. Puccini’s orchestration is wonderful throughout, creating a range of textures that maintain interest. I don’t know if he had particular affinity for the instrument, or had a crush on one of the players, but the writing for bassoon is particularly notable, and a real highlight of the piece. It’s not often I notice the bassoons to that extent.

3. I suspect Andrew Lloyd Webber is familiar with The Girl of the Golden West (particularly the beginning of Act 2). ‘Suddenly the senses abandon their defences…’

4. Of all the operas that feature a game of cards, this is the most preposterous. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Massenet’s Manon, Barber’s miniature masterpiece A Hand of Bridge all beat Puccini hands down. The daddy of them all is the graveyard scene from The Rake’s Progress which conjures chilly peril where The Girl of the Golden West channels farce and the worst bit of sleight of hand I’ve ever seen.

5. I would have expected Puccini, even slightly unfamiliar Puccini, to fill the Coliseum on a Friday night, but there were lots of spare seats last night. This is worrying for ENO, facing large budget cuts and the need to sell shows out. When Puccini is no longer a banker, grim times may be ahead.

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