The wild, wild West comes to the stage this weekend — sure as shootin’ — as Eugene Opera presents “The Girl of the Golden West.”
It’s a classic spaghetti Western love triangle, set in Gold Rush-era California: good woman (rough-and-tough outside, heart of gold within) falls in love with misunderstood bandit, breaking the heart of honorable sheriff who loves her so much that he lets them both get away.
And it’s a spaghetti Western in another way, too, because it was written by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, one of the biggest names in opera — you can even call it “La Fanciulla del West” if you want — for the New York Metropolitan Opera, which first performed it in 1910.
It was quite an event back then. Enrico Caruso sang the part of bad guy Dick Johnson, aka Ramerrez, to Emmi Destinn’s Minnie. And Arturo Toscanini himself conducted.
Wow again, because the three leads in the show — soprano Emily Pulley as Minnie, tenor Raul Melo as Johnson/Ramerrez and baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson as Sheriff Rance — all are veterans of the Metropolitan Opera stage.
They’ll be joined by Eugene’s own William Hulings as Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent on the trail of the bandit, and Brennen Guillory, a Lutheran pastor from Junction City who plays Nick, the bartender.
Andrew Bisantz — now in his fourth season as Eugene Opera’s music director, besides working with orchestras all over the country and the world — will conduct.
Pulley has sung the role of Minnie for years, and it has personal as well as professional meaning for her.
“I remember the first time I saw the show, I fell in love with the character,” she said. “That time period is part of the myth of the American West, and if I’d lived in that time, Minnie is the character I would hope to have been.”
Then Pulley pulls out her cellphone and scrolls through photos until she comes to one of her great-great grandfather, John Frederich Grau.
“He called himself J. Fred, and he was a sheriff in the Oklahoma Territory at about the same time this opera is set, so I think of him,” she said.
“I love this show because Minnie — she’s one of only two women among the main characters — is sister, mother, friend and teacher to all of the miners. She even teaches them about the Bible.
“This is basically a story of redemption in the Old West. These are all such human, human characters.”
For Melo, singing the Johnson/Ramerrez role is a first.
“I’m really excited to be doing it; I get to be a cowboy,” Melo said. “This opera is the trope for practically every movie Western, with the good woman who sees the good in a man and saves him from the wrong path.
“Even the music from this opera has been stolen for all kinds of other movies, including the big love tune in ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ Same key and everything.”
Melo has plumbed the depths of his role, a combination of the bandit Ramerrez and the pretender cowboy, Johnson.
“What I’m trying to do is not to act like I’m not a bandit, just not to say it,” he said. “So the question is, ‘Why is this character a bandit?’
“And the answer is, because this is all part of history. It’s a very complex backstory.”
A history lesson
The opera takes place circa 1900, about the time the U.S. government declared the end of the Western frontier, Melo said.
“Before that, parts of the West had been under Spanish control for centuries, then Mexican, and then American,” he said.
As time passed and governance changed, “Land was taken away from many of the big landholders — some of them were even killed — their cattle were stolen and their way of live destroyed. There was nothing left for their sons but to become bandits, and of course there was also some taking of revenge.”
But in the opera, Melo gets “only 12 measures” to convey this complicated history.
“I have this crazy, very difficult thing to sing: Yes, I’m a bandit; no, I didn’t rob you; yes, I’m ashamed; that’s the way life is — and then I have this high note that lasts for six measures.”
It’s not so much the difficulty of holding the note that concerns him, but “the dread of what color I turn,” Melo quipped. “No amount of makeup will cover that purple.”
When it comes to being on the losing end in the pursuit of Minnie, St. Clair Nicholson said, the sheriff may be the antagonist, “but he’s not evil.”
“He feels his own kind of love, but he’s a man of honor,” he said. “His honor and his obsession battle within him, but he keeps his word.”
It may all be a bit melodramatic, but that’s the way of both spaghetti Western movies and operas, “and I think this one is a masterpiece that really appeals to people,” St. Clair Nicholson said.
A genuine horse opera
As for Hulings, “The Girl of the Golden West” is his debut performance with Eugene Opera, “and I’m excited to be in the same room with these folks,” he said.
“I’m continually watching what they do, and they’ve been tremendously welcoming, and I’m also trying to bring my theater experience along.”
This production is a premiere for Eugene Opera, and general director Mark Beudert sees it as a real crowd-pleaser.
Even for people who don’t know much about opera or think they don’t like it, “This won’t be boring,” Beudert said, because of the spirited acting this group of opera singers is known for, the nontraditional cowboy costuming, the American West plot line and the participation of local people who make up the supporting cast.
At the same time, he said, coming to it with an appreciation of history that recognizes the contributions — and confrontations — among people of all cultures who settled the West also is important.
“This opera is not like fast food. You have to chew it, but it’s tasty, and it’s good,” Beudert said. “And it’s being performed by people who want to share the meal with everyone.”
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When: 7:30 p.m. March 14 and 2:30 p.m. March 16