Mix the moral corruption of a cultic religion with the derring-do of a fearless cowboy who aids a damsel in distress, and you have Riders of the Purple Sage.
This 2017opera, with music by Craig Bohmler and libretto by Steven Mark Kohn, is a parable writ large.
The saving grace of this production by Arizona Opera are the special digital effects, which are new since it was first performed in Tucson in 2017. Projected on a 1,300-square-foot video wall are a sequence of desert landscapes by Phoenix artist Ed Mell, and superimposed on this are dramatic visual effects that enhance the mood of the scenes being performed. The scenery was breathtaking and most imaginative; even someone who is not an opera fan told me it was worth going just to see the visuals. A 56-member orchestra under the direction of Joseph Mechavich was also superb, and critically important to the powerful message of the opera as a grand parable on the power of good vs evil.
“What’s a soul compared to a ranch?” asks the good-guy cowboy of the female ranch owner. “Your soul is damned,” the Bishop screams at her. As the heroine gets torn apart between her love for the good guy, and devotion to her religious scruples, one can discern a basic element that has motivated some of the finest operas in the canon. But as with all modern English-language operas, this one does not rise to the glorious effect Italian-language operas have on the human ear and mind. At nearly 3 hours with two intermissions, it puts up the pretense of a grand opera without the magical and undefinable quality possessed by the masterpieces of Verdi.
The Mormon church can hardly be pleased with this opera, as it portrays their ‘religion’ in the worst possible light. The misogynistic duet of astonishing cruelty in Act 3 must have made many in the audience cringe. The attitude of the so-called Bishop (and the leader of a vicious band of cowboys) towards women in not even the most heinous of the sins on full display.
Another major segment of American society will, however, find much to admire here. The most powerful aria of the opera is “A man without a gun is only half a man.” It may very well have been true in the Wild West portrayed in the opera, but hardly applies to the 2020s; nonetheless it will certainly please the NRA membership.
With excellent singing from a rotating principal cast, Riders of the Purple Sage was presented with great panache by stage director Fenlon Lamb.
The next performance by Arizona Opera is the 1916 opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss on April 11 and 12. Visit the website for future operas in Tucson: