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Festival opera Ainadamar semi-staged but powerful, strongly cast and magnificently performed

By , 02/03/2014

Ainadamar, opera by Osvaldo Golijov

Production, semi-staged, by the New Zealand Festival with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and directed by Sara Brodie

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Publication here of this review of the performance on 2 March was delayed till 18 March because it is in some part based on my review in the New Zealand Listener; it is unethical to publish elsewhere until the issue of the Listener has gone ‘off sale’, at the end of last weekend.

I made use of the delay to add some material from reviews of earlier productions of Ainadamar. In the light of conflicting attitudes towards the work, I find it illuminating to read a range of opinions from other parts of the world.

Sunday 2 March 2014

In spite of the many attempts by composers of the present day to use contemporary issues and events as subjects for opera, few have survived more than an opening season of performances.  For by determining to display a command of the concepts and fashions that musical academia has developed and made de rigueur for a composer who wants to be taken seriously by his peers,  most have failed to engage more than small dutiful audiences dedicated to serious academic music.

Ainadamar, however, premiered in 2003 at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts (where it won “a shouting, stomping ovation”), and has been rapturously received, at least by audiences, in a dozen places. Certain critics have been less open-hearted.

The work deals with poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca’s assassination by fascists in 1936, though much of the narrative is through a powerful portrayal by actress Margarita Xirgu, who was devoted to Lorca and was the famous creator of the role of Mariana Pineda in Lorca’s play of the same name.  Pineda was an early 19th century liberal who was garrotted by the monarchy (a particularly kindly execution technique practised by the Spanish); she is presented as presaging Lorca’s own fate.

The text is by David Henry Hwang, translated into Spanish by the composer (with good English surtitles).  Using some projected images from overseas productions, this most successful semi-production is a great credit to Sara Brodie; there were several experienced international singers and we were lucky to have Ainadamar veteran Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducting. The former musical director of the Auckland Philharmonia has conducted several incarnations of the work in North America (including the debut of the opera’s revised form in Santa Fe in 2005), produced an authentic, sometimes hair-raising performance. Percussion and guitars made prominent and splendidly vivid contributions.

A reduced NZSO was on stage, and the singers, including a strong, authentically Spanish-sounding chorus (director, Michael Vinten) occupied the space in front of the orchestra and an elevated platform behind it.

Ainadamar might be one of a rare number of contemporary operas to have touched a wider public. However, several critics have attacked it for an alleged lack of coherent story and a literary context for García Lorca, that it’s ‘not really an opera’. And some reviews have been pleased to refer to such phenomena as ‘multi-ethnic hodgepodges’, ‘Arabic music’, ‘Ladino (Sephardic-Jewish)’, ‘flamenco’, ‘indigenous folk’, with a ‘trivial’ libretto, all to suggest an incoherent, tasteless mess.

Most such views seem driven by pre-conceived, negative attitudes, unschooled aesthetic sensibilities, and artistic and intellectual pretension.

One must look at what the creators made, not what critics might fancy.
A sane review of the 2012 Long Beach production in the United States magazine Opera News acknowledges the almost universal praise from most critics, and certainly audiences: “The bestselling, Grammy-winning 2006 recording (DG) with Dawn Upshaw helped spread the reputation of the opera considerably; today Golijov’s taut, lush work is widely viewed as one of his bellwether achievements and one of this generation’s more significant contributions to the art form.”

I go with that.

The four main roles were taken by singers acclaimed in overseas productions.  The most impressive performances were by Kelley O’Connor as Lorca and Jessica Rivera as Margarita; Leanne Kenneally looked a little misplaced as Margarita’s student Nuria though her voice totally redeemed her. The Falangist thug, Ruís Alonso, was excellently sung by Jesus Montoya.  A minor negative in the entire context was the amplified voices, sometimes disconcertingly: with amplification, one loses a sense of the source of the sound, of who is actually singing. These were well experienced opera singers who appeared to have voices that would have projected well.

The story (yes there is one) emerges in three dreamlike ‘imagen’, or tableaux, the first and last in 1969 in Montevideo where Margarita is dying; the second Imagen is Lorca’s murder in Granada in 1936, graphic but not actually seen.

Its power lies in the vividly portrayed emotion arising from a major 20th century conflict between brutal autocracy and liberal democracy, and genuine grief for Lorca’s barbarous death.

No opera can give all the facts in a historically-based drama; we do not need them, and the engaged and curious will go and find them.

But it seemed a shame to have mounted such a fine production for just one performance, given the huge enthusiasm from the full house.

 

Other views of Ainadamar

The first production was at the Tanglewood Festival, Massachusetts, in 2003.

There were reviews of that production in Opera (London) and the New York Opera News.

George Loomis in Opera began by noting Golijov’s rocketing to fame with a St Mark Passion marking the 300th anniversary of Bach’s death, for Stuttgart.  But he judged that there was disappointment with Ainadamar.

He referred to eclecticism, to the dominating flamenco rhythms, incessant repetition of vocal lines that “retraced the same  stepwise successions of intervals”.  He claimed that it “tested the audience’s knowledge of Lorca with cumbersome parallels between his life and the heroine of his play Mariana Pineda (also a revolutionary martyr), while the playwright himself was barely fleshed out as a character”. He thought Lorca himself was “oddly cast as a mezzo-soprano, Kelley O’Connor [whom we also saw in Wellington]”.

However, the critic for Opera News (Willard Spiegelman) seemed to be reporting on a different performance.

He heard the audience exploding after “Golijov’s more [than for the first work in the evening’s double bill] accessible, tuneful, lush and dramatically nuanced Ainadamar”.

He wrote that it possessed “both symmetry and depth”; and he sees Margarita Xirgu as the key figure, saying that “she has triumphantly given voice to both Lorca and Mariana Pineda. In a secular rather than a religious way, Ainadamar traces a path to transcendence.”

After describing the instrumentation, Spiegelman  concludes: “Golijov’s expressive score was, throughout, rich and expansive, but perhaps too often predictably beautiful”. Furthermore, he admired the work of conductor Robert Spano, who brought out “its flamenco and folk tonalities and coaxed his superb, youthful musicians into building the music to heights and depths of romantic passion.”

Dawn Upshaw sang the older Margarita at Tanglewood, as she did for the revised version premiered at Santa Fe and in the 2006 DG recording. “She made her character reflective and passionate, wistful, uncertain and then  confident, by turns.”  He found Kelley O’Connor wonderful as Lorca.

Santa Fe: the Peter Sellars revision

It was also Loomis who reviewed the revised version at Santa Fe in 2005 for Opera. His severity had somewhat abated.  The opera had been worked over by Golijov and director Peter Sellars and one clear improvement was to have Margarita, who, in 2003, had been shared between Amanda Forsythe and Dawn Upshaw, now sung entirely by Upshaw, while some of the role of the young Margarita was assumed by her student, Nuria [sung by Jessica Rivera who, in Wellington, truly moved from being Margarita’s student to being the mentor herself].

Loomis still implies disapproval of the pervading flamenco idiom, but he liked the trouser role given to Lorca, “which allows for mellifluous trios in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier”.

And he admired the women’s chorus as well as the conducting of Miguel Harth-Bedoya (the conductor in Wellington as well as for several other productions).

But Simon Williams was distinctly more generous in his Opera News review.

“The highlight of the festival was the revised version of Ainadamar…”, he wrote, saying that Peter Sellars’ production did more than merely to recall Margarita’s “profound artistic affinity with the Spanish poet…”; “…it became a ritual that mourned not the death of an individual man but the appalling waste of youth, beauty and life that blighted the last century and now threatens our own.”

I think parts of the review are worth repeating in full.

“Golijov’s mesmerising score articulates the destruction of spontaneity and beauty with disquieting accuracy. The vital rhythms of flamenco are dismembered by the sounds of war – mean fanfares on brass, the oppressive rhythms of the march, the dismal breakdown of tonal beauty, and the incursion of spoken voices, commanding, screaming babbling in fear – which are replaced, in turn, by the piercing, elegant music of lamentation. It is music whose idiom is instantly accessible, arising from the sounds of life, centred constantly on the misery we visit on ourselves through an ineradicable urge towards violence.”

“Dawn Upshaw brought a concentrated inwardness to Margarita Xirgu, her unwaveringly clear, pure vocal line blending effortlessly with the chorus, allowing her to develop the character into a figure of heroic suffering. Golijov sees violence as inherently masculine, suffering and sympathy as feminine; hence the poet Lorca was sung by a woman, Kelley O’Connor , who aptly invested the gentle figure of the poet with a bewitching androgyny.”

Other elements:
“Jessica Rivera embodied horror at the past and a faint touch of hope for the future … the shooting of Lorca – along with a schoolteacher and a movingly inarticulate bull-fighter – by a hysterical soldier … a treacherously pious guard … terrible deeds to which our prejudices and mindless obeisance to authority can drive us.”

Productions since Santa Fe

There have been productions at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 2006; by Opera Boston and by Indiana University in 2007; by the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia in 2008; and Cincinnati Opera in 2009.

A CD recording that won a Grammy award was made by DG with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 2006: it featured Dawn Upshaw, Kelley O’Connor, Jessica Rivera and Jesus Montoya (Falangist officer).

Later productions have been at the Granada Festival in 2011 and that production went on to Santander and Oviedo.

Long Beach Opera, Los Angeles staged it in May 2012.

In 2012 Peter Sellars directed a production for the Teatro Real in Madrid. And in October the same year there was a production at Pittsburgh.

The Yerba Buena Centre in San Francisco staged it in February 2013

And Opera Philadelphia produced it in February 2014.

Long Beach

A review of the production by Long Beach Opera, Los Angeles, gave a very just view:

“… today Golijov’s taut, lush work is widely viewed as one of his bellwether achievements and one of this generation’s more significant contributions to the art form.

“The Long Beach Opera production … was an aesthetic and musical success, offering a strong artistic vision and sound execution throughout.  …

“David Henry Hwang’s libretto for Ainadamar is a nightmarish meditation on the death of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca at the hands of Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the eyes of his frequent artistic collaborator, Margarita Xirgu.

“The work’s uncanny rhythmic vitality and melodic elegance put Golijov’s strengths on full display. Drawing from Latin, Arab, Jewish and European influences, the score blends traditional structural elements with contemporary invention. The comforting familiarity of arias–chorus–dance episode is counteracted by, say, prerecorded gunshots that take the role of percussion instruments. Graceful vocal lines and brutal percussive chaos — it works.”

Philadelphia

But even as late in the day as February 2014, when Opera Philadelphia staged Aindamar, a so-called critic could write a piece that displays perversity, ill-will and an extraordinary lack of perception.

Here is the way it starts:
“Five actors shoot three characters at point-blank range on a stage. Then the executioners break into a choreographed flamenco number immediately after, firing their guns to the beat of the music.

“You might think I’m describing some sort of variation on the ‘Springtime for Hitler’ sequence in Mel Brook’s The Producers, where we are supposed to laugh at the absurdly developed (on purpose, mind you) theatrical production about the Nazi regime.

“But you’d be wrong.

“Instead, the above execution scene is from Opera Philadelphia’s staging of Golijov’s Ainadamar: Fountain of Tears, which is, unfortunately, supposed to be taken seriously.
The opera, which runs a brief 80 minutes, is underwhelming at best, and downright incoherent and disconnected at worst.

“Of particular note is the fact that the main character in the opera, famed playwright and poet Federico García Lorca, is essentially lacking context, development, and ethos. Lorca, who was a gay man, is strangely hetero-sexualized in the production, infatuated with two women (minus one reference to him being a “faggot”); very little historical framework is provided in regards to Lorca as a great literary mind. Instead, we are rushed through a series of redundant, often cryptic scenes where director Luis de Tavira’s extremely stylized hand feels forced instead of organic. Unless you come to the opera with an extremely well-read background on Lorca, his work, and the context surrounding his death, the opera makes too many leaps without what every good undergraduate learns in fiction writing 101: You sort of need a plot.”

But then a proper critic, David Patrick Stearns, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, offered a lucid and understanding review.

“Ainadamar isn’t really an opera but a whirlwind – intoxicating, exciting, and ultimately troubling – whose 90 intermissionless minutes leaves viewers wondering what hit them.

“Osvaldo Golijov’s opera was imposing enough in a Curtis production in the Kimmel Center’s smallish-scale Perelman Theater in 2008. Now it has been brought back by Opera Philadelphia in a larger, imported-from-Spain co-production that has no trouble enveloping the Academy of Music, and is easily among the most stimulating theatrical events, operatic or not, so far this season.

“This meditation on the 1936 assassination of poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca is recounted in flashbacks by the actress Margarita Xirgu, Lorca’s soulmate, which means Ainadamar lacks a linear plot. The absence of chronological regimentation supports the production’s multi-layered theatricality, from modern computer animation to archival film footage of 1930s Spain to choreography devised by Stella Arauzo for the revered Compania Antonio Gades dancers that goes well beyond flamenco.

“Golijov’s effortlessly ethnic score, which initially feels like a warm bath, is actually a canny piece of operatic theater with well-calculated peaks and valleys and increasingly stark contrasts: When it hits a particularly congenial moment – Margarita persuading Lorca to come on tour with her to Cuba – it won’t be long before flamenco footfalls have a duet with the gunshots that kill him.

“So effectively does the music penetrate one’s consciousness that there’s little risk of visual distraction: The music seems to colour everything around it, intensifying the whole. One could argue that Ainadamar, and this production in particular, achieves Wagner’s theory of Gesamtkunstwerk (total art) more fluidly than Wagner.”

 

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