Osvaldo Golijov
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Ainadamar (2003): Reviews
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From: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Pierre Ruhe)

ASO soars in tale of a murder

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Robert Spano, expanded their musical horizons with "Ainadamar," a spare, meditative opera that concerns the 1936 murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

From every facet, in almost every direction, the performance Wednesday evening in Symphony Hall succeeded as well as can be imagined. I suspect Atlanta's classical music year will best be remembered for "Ainadamar," a massive undertaking, given here its southeastern premiere.

For the ASO, the opera is part of a multi-year commitment to Osvaldo Golijov, the 44-year-old Argentine composer, now living in Boston, who is perhaps the hottest classical composer on the planet.

Atlanta has been lucky. Spano and the ASO have performed most of the composer's orchestral music in recent seasons. They'll record this opera, part of a two-CD set for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. In February, the ASO will perform his "St. Mark" Passion and, later in the month, play his music at a New York festival titled "The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov."

Indeed, Golijov has become a mighty big deal. After Spano conducted the world premiere of "Ainadamar" at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2003, the composer admitted it needed to be strengthened and rewritten. Everyone knew a composer of Golijov's extraordinary talents deserved a second chance.

The taut revision was first heard at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer. With minor changes, this is the version performed by the ASO.

Recalling and mourning Lorca's murder during the Spanish Civil War is the basic plot of "Ainadamar"(pronounced EYE-nah-dah-mar.) But within the opera's 80 minutes Golijov and librettist David Henry Hwang weave a counterpoint of deep images: on love, loss and dignity; on how precarious a society is and how it can crumble so quickly; on the idea that art, like life itself, does not exist in finished form but must be passed on for the next generation.

What creates sparks in Golijov's music are the Spanish and Latin American dance rhythms, flamenco, rumba, bossa nova, tango. They flow ceaselessly, joyously, till they are no longer heard but only felt, more a pulse or an electrical current. Even dripping water and gun shots ring and are replayed till they take on a flamenco beat.

In music and action, the opera blurs past and present. Three women play the central characters. The main role of Margarita Xirgu, an actress and supporter of Lorca, was created for soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sang here with the conviction and attention to detail of a Meryl Streep. Xirgu came of age with Lorca, performed in "Mariana Pineda," his first hit play, and after his death, spent her life keeping his memory alive.

As Lorca, Kelley O'Connor's rich, velvety mezzo extended down into a gender-neutral contralto range. A young singer of poise, she seems assured a major career.

Soprano Jessica Rivera, as the actress' student Nuria, the women of the ASO chorus and several singers in smaller roles — Alex Richardson and Eduardo Chama among them — delivered their parts with intensity and care.

In the opera's best moments, Golijov's love of the female voice evokes a Latino Richard Strauss, and there's a rapturous trio that brings to mind the most sublime moments from "Rosenkavalier."

Elsewhere, the composer creates emotional discord when he sets a scene of murder and anguish to a sexy, foot-tapping mambo beat — a technique for implanting the horrors of war and political repression in the everyday world. This ASO production was also notable for scenic designs — really watercolor sketches projected on a screen — by Santiago Calatrava, the architect for the ASO's planned Symphony Center.

Although the images don't try to locate the opera in time or space, Calatrava's understated, stony face, for example, becomes a terrified member of the crowd. These drawings, simple on their own, lend an atmosphere that was entirely in line with an opera where beauty can't mask the dark side of our world.

And yet. There are some works of art that visit dark recesses of the mind and soul, works that you dare not approach too closely, or too often. Art that remembers the Holocaust can be an example of this — and the more convincing the imagery, the more naturally guarded you are before you absorb the full brunt of its message.

Likewise, "Ainadamar" — violent, intense, chronically poetic and yet more schematic that visceral — isn't a work to approach on a whim.

Still, I'd wager that this opera will have a long life, and it will be spent more often in the concert hall than the opera house. So credit the ASO with discovering a dramatic oratorio of uncommon power and pathos. Although the ASO run is nearly sold out, get yourself a ticket any way you can. It'll be talked about for years to come.

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