How momentous it is that an opera as monumental and well-crafted as Craig Bohmler's RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE can now lay claim to a rightful place in the canon of works about the American West. This is homespun material in contrast to Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West. It echoes, but with marvelous lyricism, the movements of Copland's Billy the Kid.
In its World Premiere, as part of Arizona Opera's Arizona Bold Initiative, RIDERS is literally and figuratively blazing new trails, demonstrating the relevance and value of the age old genre in a dynamic and memorable production.
Steven Mark Kohn's libretto is true to Zane Grey's classic 1912 novel, and the lingo of ranchers, cowpokes and gunslingers resonates with authenticity in the voices of a superb cast, featuring (in the production I saw) Karin Wolverton, Morgan Smith, Joshua Dennis, Amanda Opuszynski, Kristopher Irmiter, and Keith Phares.
Grey clearly laid the groundwork for the oaters of the future, replete with the damsel in distress and the gunslinger who comes to her rescue. In RIDERS, the damsel is Jane Withersteen (Wolverton), a Mormon who, contrary to her sect's norms, has befriended a Gentile, Bern Venters (Dennis). Her nemesis, Elder Tull (Phares) lusts less for her than for the wealth of the property she owns and cannot abide her association with Bern. As he's about to whip Bern for the impropriety, Lassiter the gunslinger (Smith) arrives to save the day but also has a quest of his own to pursue. The story weaves forward from that point to a climactic finale that merits an unequivocal standing ovation.
The magnificent magnified background paintings by Ed Mell, an artistic legend in his own right, capture the textures and topography of the Western landscape and give the work its epic feel.
After limited performances in Tucson and at Symphony Hall in Phoenix, one can only hope that RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE becomes a featured program in venues throughout the country.