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Virginia Opera’s “Girl of the Golden West” Offers a Lush, Sweeping Puccini Score

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If Giacomo Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West" sounds hauntingly familiar to first-time listeners, it's probably because they've heard it before.

In fact, a musical phrase from the opera sounds so similar to the melody of "The Music of the Night" from "The Phantom of the Opera" that Puccini's estate supposedly sued for copyright infringement. The matter is said to have been settled out of court.

"There are some Broadway musicals that [have] helped themselves to Mr. Puccini's music," teases Lillian Groag, director of Virginia Opera's "Girl of the Golden West," which comes to town this weekend.

Having a melody lifted by the Phantom isn't "Golden West's" only distinction. It's also the rare opera set in America's Wild West.

Taking place at a gold rush-era mining camp in California, the opera tells the tale of Minnie, a saloon proprietress who's caught up in a love triangle. While Sheriff Jack Rance wants to marry Minnie, she'd much rather get with Dick Johnson, a bandit whose alias is Ramerrez. Naturally, Rance has it out for his romantic rival with a double phallic name.

"It's a spaghetti Western with barroom brawls, in the plural," explains Groag of the opera. "Broken bottles, broken chairs, guns and gunshots. It's wonderful."

Even for those who aren't Andrew Lloyd Webber fans, the opera may still sound surprisingly familiar; hundreds of Western films have mimicked Puccini's score.

"We might describe [Puccini's score] as cinematic, and there's a reason for that," explains conductor Andrew Bisantz. "When European composers were coming over to Hollywood in the '20s and '30s to write scores for American Westerns, they had no idea what an American Western should sound like, but they did know Puccini's 'Girl of the Golden West.'"

And Bisantz isn't just entranced by the show because he's a part of it. When this incarnation of the opera premiered years ago at New York's Glimmerglass Festival he was so entranced that he saw it 11 times in a row.

"It is a rare chance to see one of Puccini's great masterpieces done well," says Bisantz of this production. "If you like 'Tosca,' if you like '[Madama] Butterfly' and certainly 'Turandot,' you will absolutely love this piece."

While not as popular as the other Puccini operas Bisantz mentions, "Golden West" still boasts a lush, sweeping score and other hallmarks of the composer's work.

"The show is not done often because it's a big show, and it's also extremely hard to sing," Groag explains. "You need huge voices, and you need stamina to last through the whole thing. "

One such voice belongs to soprano Jill Gardner, who portrays Minnie in "Golden West."

"This is an opera about characters that Americans are going to understand," Gardner says. "The American West is so much a part of our knowledge and experience in this country."

In the town where the opera takes place, Minnie is more than just a proprietress; she's also the emotional heart of the male-dominated community of miners and gunslingers.

"In a real way, she's also the mother to all of these boys," Gardner says. "She's a woman of faith, she's a major character of integrity in this story."

Gardner encourages operagoers to ditch the fancy attire and dress the part instead.

"Put your Western wear on, get your cowboy boots on, get your blue jeans on, and come see a Western at the opera," she says. "There will be guns, there will be fights, there's lots of whiskey being passed around.

"It's a great love story set in the American West." S

Virginia Opera's "Girl of the Golden West" plays Nov. 17 and 19 at the Dominion Arts Center, 600 E. Grace St. For information, visit vaopera.org or call 866-673-7282.

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