“Riders of the Purple Sage” – Arizona Opera

Opera Review – March 6, 2017


Arizona Opera, Symphony Hall
Phoenix, AZ

It’s always exciting when a world premiere performing arts event occurs in Arizona.  And when the world premiere comes from a locally based composer, Craig Bohmler, the work stirs even more interest.  Add a world-famous local visual artist to create the striking sets and the audience at Friday’s night’s Arizona Opera’s performance of “Riders of the Purple Sage” was pulling for the work.  It justified the excitement.

Bohmler’s creative score and Steven Mark Kohn’s libretto are based on Zane Grey’s well-known novel.  Not only is the impressive production stunningly designed but it is exquisitely cast.  The opera traces Jane Withersteen who tries to come to terms with the fellow members of her small, rural Mormon community and the rigorous life people manage through multiple marriages within each family.  The local church leader, Elder Tull, wants to marry Jane but she struggles with realities of a dominate church on the town.  She’s treated as a community outsider as the town hopes to ruin her.  A secondary plot tells of her friend Venters love affair with Bess while Lassiter, another of her friends, hopes to trash the town.  Lots of evil and hate going on.

Bohmler crafts some interesting melodies buit far from his best to capture the rough locale and the setting allows local artist Ed Mell to deliver a rich looking production.  His projected backdrop captures various sky views of the isolated arena.

Director Fenlon Lamb keeps the action brisk and interesting while conductor Joseph Mechavich leads the fine orchestra with courageous tempos.  The impeccable cast creates believable and divergent characters.  Soprano Karin Wolverton’s Jane is strong and richly sung while Morgan Smith’s rough Lassister and Joshua Dennis’ Bern are both independent men willing to grapple with the west’s founding.

Arizona Opera has aspirations for “Riders of the Purple Sage.”  Several major American opera companies were in the Phoenix audience during its weekend Symphony Hall performances and “Riders of the Purple Sage” sold more single tickets than any other opera in the company’s 45 year history.  It’s significant to note that the work has gone through lots of positive development since I first saw it during a local staged workshop here a few seasons ago.

“Riders of the Purple Sage” does have one problem.  It runs three hours and needs editing since the story becomes belabored with such a long running time.  It ended its local engagement Sunday, March 5.  To order tickets to future productions, call the Arizona Opera box office at 602-266-7464 or order tickets online at www.azopera.org.

Grade: B