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Ainadamar (2003): Reviews
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From: Los Angeles Times (Mark Swed)

"Ainadamar" is Arabic for "Fountain of Tears." This is what medieval Spanish Arabs called the source of a canal carrying water into the city of Granada. And it was at this grimly fitting site that fascists executed the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca early on the morning of Aug. 18 or 19, 1936, along with other victims of the Spanish Civil War, throwing the bodies into a mass grave.

So perhaps it is fitting that "Ainadamar," the new opera about Lorca's death by Osvaldo Golijov, has been the occasion for a few tears as well.

Given its premiere by the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts last summer, "Ainadamar" was set to travel to New York's Lincoln Center in the fall before finally reaching Walt Disney Concert Hall (Tanglewood, Lincoln Center and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are the co-commissioners). However, a vocal infection took Dawn Upshaw, the opera's star, out of service for several months, and the New York performances could not proceed.

Upshaw's back in form, and the Los Angeles premiere took place on schedule Sunday night before an enthusiastic sell-out crowd. A long line of hopefuls waiting for last-minute ticket returns proved there is more to L.A. than Oscars. And the warm, effusive reception for this troubled work proved something else... The poetic power of Golijov's lyric voice and pulsating rhythms has a life force all its own.

Though with the same terrific singers (all students except Upshaw) and production team, "Ainadamar" reached Los Angeles changed from its premiere. Golijov has substantially rewritten two scenes and fiddled with the orchestration throughout. Transferring Chay Yew's production from a proscenium stage to Disney meant considerable simplification, which proved entirely to the good.

But theatrically, the opera is still very much a work in progress. Director Peter Sellars was in the audience, and word was leaked that he plans to rethink "Ainadamar" from the ground up for a production at the Santa Fe Opera in 2005 and that it will be that production New York will see afterward.

The saga of "Ainadamar" began with Golijov dropping his initial idea for a Holocaust opera told through the eyes of grieving women and turning to Lorca for inspiration at the last possible minute. Last spring, he talked playwright David Henry Hwang into crafting a libretto in a matter of weeks. Hwang had the further constraint of maintaining the original all-female cast. In the great operatic tradition, the Argentine-born Golijov, who translated the libretto into Spanish, composed right up to the Tanglewood premiere.

In certain respects, "Ainadamar" is a remarkable achievement for something so quickly crafted. The short opera (in Tanglewood it was paired with another premiere, Robert Zuidam's "Rage d'Amours") ambitiously presents Lorca from several simultaneous points of view and time frames. His death is seen in flashback by the aging actress Margarita Xirgu, who is waiting backstage to give her final performance of Lorca's early play, "Mariana Pineda." She recalls the poet and herself as a young woman, visualizes his execution and communes with his spirit as she walks on stage, where she collapses and dies.

Upshaw is a rapt, commanding figure as the elder Margarita, as is Kelley O'Connor, a strikingly charismatic mezzo-soprano, now a graduate student at UCLA, as Lorca. Among Golijov's improvements is that he has given O'Connor a more exuberant, Lorca-like entrance. Unhappily, though, these impressive singers did not register ideally in Disney.

With the action confined to a small platform behind the orchestra, and the voices heard through ever-changing, rarely natural-sounding amplification, this became opera as distant ritual. Yew has reduced some of the original production's clumsiness but not that of a dancer wearing a horse head mask who turns up, hoofing it, at the opera's most emotional moments.

There was also amplification in the orchestra, making a solo guitar louder than all the strings and brass together. All of this was a shame, given how carefully conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya worked to keep the orchestra's steamy flamenco rhythms percolating at just the right low boil.

Still, you can't take away the rapture of Golijov's music. The ear eventually adapted to artificial sound; the eye soon lost its expectations. Nothing could prevent the blood-curdling effect of the arresting officer (Charles Blandy in one of the few small male roles) wailing like a demented bullfighter as he ushered Lorca toward death. Nor was there any escaping the raw passion of the young Margarita (Amanda Forsythe).

Earlier in the day, as he had Friday and Saturday nights, Harth-Bedoya led members of the Philharmonic (those not participating in the opera) in a program of Argentine music by Golijov ("Last Rounds"), Astor Piazzolla (including the Bandoneón Concerto, played with little passion but entrancingly subtle virtuosity by Horacio Romo) and Ginastera ("Variaciones Concertantes"). It was a fine, if too obvious, prelude to "Ainadamar."

One glaring omission in the program book was Golijov's dedication of "Ainadamar" to the memory of Sue Knussen, who, as education director of the Philharmonic, introduced Golijov to the orchestra. The rest is history.

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