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Riders of the Purple Sage 
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Burning Godzilla
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Joined: Thu Mar 30, 2006 1:54 am
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Location: California's #2 tourist destination
Riders of the Purple Sage
Not a movie, but an opera! Performed by the Arizona Opera in Tucson, and written by a local composer and librettist, it's an adaptation of the century-old novel by Zane Grey.

And in this novel... well, the bad guys are Mormons. Mormon-bashing was pretty popular back then, with even Arthur Conan Doyle getting in on the act. The heroine, Jane Withersteen, is also a pious Mormon, and in the book eventually renounces the sect, but in the opera she does not. The opera's attitude toward faith is summed up by the gunman Lassiter saying (paraphrased) that there are two kinds of religion: one kind gives people peace and brings out their best side, and the other turns people into power-hungry fuzzyduckling.

They knew it would be controversial. This opera company may be based in Tucson, but they also have to play in Phoenix, which happens to be packed with Mormons.

The plot is pure western cliché... because Zane Grey created the tropes that everyone imitated. Greedy bad guys are trying to steal the ranch the heroine has inherited, through either forced marriage or simple violence against her hands, but a lone mysterious gunman intervenes. Much melodrama ensues. She finally persuades Lassiter to give up his guns, but then he needs to strap them on one last time...

We didn't know going in whether the music would resemble cowboy songs, or modern opera, or what. Turns out it's very operatic, but in a populist style. The bad news is, it totally fails to establish a sound with any distance from Aaron Copland. Once you're used to that, it's fine, it gets the job done. The singers were good — the cast is youthful, and could have used more old-age makeup for some parts. The lead soprano was a touch weaker than the others. The company has two singers for each lead part, so they can rotate them like pitchers in baseball. The ones we saw were Laura Wilde as Withersteen and Joshua Jeremiah (can that actually be someone's real name?) as Lassiter.

The last thing to mention is... well, when they feature the principal creators on the cover of the program, they list three names: composer Craig Bohmler, librettist Steven Mark Kohn, and scenery by Ed Mell. And of the three, it was Ed Mell's background paintings that left everyone impressed and mind-blown. Fantastic stylized desert landscapes in lurid hues were projected behind the stage, and they could shift color during a scene to indicate a sunset or a change in the weather. Peojection designer Jacob Pinholster made these paintings more brilliant and dynamic on stage than they could ever be on canvas.

Apparently when he was younger, Mell specialized in painting manmade stuff like cars — he was very into midcentury modern design — and he got well paid for work in advertising. Now that he's a respected "real" artist, his landscapes have some of that same flashy energy.

"This is a Star Trek that pretends to have balls, but continues to prove that those balls are actually rubber prophylactics pretending to be balls." -- Bj

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Sun Mar 05, 2017 8:35 pm
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