Arizona Opera made history Saturday night with "Riders of the Purple Sage," its first world premiere of its first ever commissioned opera.

It now has a seat at the big-boys' table among companies three, four times its size in opera-friendly cities like Chicago and New York.

Companies the size of Arizona, which mounts productions in Tucson and Phoenix, don't normally put themselves on the shaky limb of "new works." It's a risky, expensive venture. Not many companies can raise the money to support a commission. Not many companies our size can foot the $1.1 million bill that came with creating a new work from scratch. And not many companies would risk turning off the audience who might be hesitant to buy into a never-before-heard Western opera based on a nearly 100-year-old novel about a devout Mormon woman conflicted about following the church line and losing her independence by marrying a church-picked man she didn't love. 

But at the big boys table, taking a chance is the price of admission, and on Saturday night, with some 1,400 people in the audience, Arizona Opera took that challenge with "Riders of the Purple Sage" — and it paid off.

The audience loved it; they cheered the introduction of the composer Craig Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn, sitting in the fourth or fifth row, center stage at Tucson Music Hall. They cheered when the curtains opened, showing off Arizona artist Ed Mell's brilliant landscapes projected on a mind-bogglingly enormous LED screen. They laughed when baritone Morgan Smith, singing the role of Lassiter, put Elder Tull (baritone Keith Phares) in his place and rescued Bern Venters (tenor Joshua Dennis) from certain death by whipping.

But mostly, the audience sat in the darkened Tucson Music Hall in a state of amazement. Amazed that the little company they've come to rely on to bring them opera's golden oldies alongside newer or never-before-seen-in-Arizona works had taken this mighty leap and that what they saw and heard was a pretty terrific piece of opera/music theater.

Bohmler is a veteran of music theater; that genre strongly informs "Riders of the Purple Sage," based on the seminal novel by Zane Grey. Kohn's book plays out like singing theater. The arias and duets don't belabor recitatives; they are more like singing dialogue that moves the story along at a faster pace. And the singers' diction was so crisp and clear that you could understand everything they sang. You found yourself ignoring the supertitles above the stage, which are required reading for most operas — even works written and performed in English. 

Bohmler's score had strong references to classic Western film themes — the graceful calm of a cattleman tending his herd at sunset; the quiver of strings and woodwinds when the lone gunman rides in and disturbs the status quo; the dramatic whodunnit feel when Lassiter guns down Bishop Dyer (bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter) during services in the Mormon church. Conductor Joseph Mechavich brought out dramatic flourishes in the Arizona Opera Orchestra, which did justice the music and Bohmler's intent that it remind us of the Silver Screen era Westerns without imitating them.

Saturday night's cast included standout performances from Dennis, Smith, soprano Karin Wolverton in the role of Jane Withersteen and soprano Amanda Opuszynski as Bess.

But the biggest applause of the evening went to Mell's scenery, which subtly changed in a blink of an eye and was almost like an additional character in the action. Clouds moved like they were breathing; bright sunlight faded to nighttime dark; mountain ranges cast long shadows against a moonlit night.

"Riders" repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday at Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Click here for ticket information.

It moves to Phoenix Friday for a three-day run. Special guests expected to attend the Phoenix shows include descendants of Zane Grey and celebrated American opera composer Carlisle Floyd, who is Bohmler's former teacher and mentor.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@tucson.com or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

I cover music for the Arizona Daily Star.