Osvaldo Golijov
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Ainadamar (2003): Reviews
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From: Newark Star-Ledger (Bradley Bambarger)

'Ainadamar' evokes tears and cheers

Wildly differing levels of enthusiasm, both inside and outside the theater, helped illustrate the ongoing cultural shift represented by Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar" versus Brian Ferneyhough's "Shadowtime," another new opera produced last summer by Lincoln Center.

Although dealing with 20th-century political tragedy — as does "Ainadamar" — the abstruse, even pompous "Shadowtime" sent theatergoers streaming to the exits. Its dated ideas of "modernism" even irritated most critics. Conversely, the New York premiere of "Ainadamar" on Sunday at the same Frederick P. Rose Theater earned an ovation from an audience obviously taken by its deeply emotive, vividly cross-cultural aesthetic.

"Ainadamar" — which repeats tonight as the first part of Lincoln Center's festival devoted to Golijov — is only the latest success for a 45-year-old, Argentine-born composer beloved of opinion-leading artists for the past decade. Hardly light-hearted, light-headed entertainment, his opera vibrates with blood-red intensity and a sophisticated emotional intelligence. Perhaps most important, the soul of the music is melody — earthy, expressive and often rooted in the Spain of the story's setting.

"Ainadamar" is Granada's "fountain of tears," where poet-playwright Federico García Lorca was murdered by Fascists early in the Spanish Civil War (and where hundreds of others would be killed). The libretto, by David Henry Hwang, focuses not on Lorca, but on actress Margarita Xirgu. At her life's end 40 years later, she recalls her premiere of Lorca's play "Mariana Pineda," about a 19th-century martyr against oppression. Xirgu imagines how Lorca was killed after refusing to flee with her to Latin America, and she passes on the spirit of artistic conscience to her students.

Although full of tension, the 80-minute "Ainadamar" is almost more poem than drama, like a Bach cantata (and could be nearly as powerful just presented in concert). Peter Sellars has staged the piece in his most effective gestural style, aided by almost luridly colorful backdrops by the painter Gronk. The body language and rich visuals are nearly as attuned to Golijov's score as his music is to the story.

A growling double bass frames "Ainadamar," with roiling Latin percussion, flamenco guitar, pealing brass and sound effects often amplified to explosive effect. There are striking sequences — the sliding strings and well-oiled, rumba-like rhythms of the scene where Xirgu and Lorca meet in a bar; an offstage flamenco singer, wailing like a muezzin, as he chants the Fascist accusations and chills the blood; a shimmering marimba that underpins the beautifully blended prayers of Lorca and his fellow prisoners as they prepare to meet their maker.

Whether dark or brilliant, classical or vernacular, the disparate sounds came together like a mosaic via the performance of an augmented Orchestra of St. Luke's under conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. And Golijov could scarcely have found two more affecting performers for the main vocal roles.

Dawn Upshaw proved again that she isn't just a refined musician but a fearless one. As Xirgu, the soprano dug deep for laments of soul-shaking power (as when, on her knees, she cried, "I want to tear out my eyes," as she visualized Lorca's slaying). A more inward character, Lorca was disarmingly played by rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, wearing a man's suit and with her hair slicked back. Whether smiling slyly in a flirting duet with Upshaw or shedding calm, quiet tears at the end of a gun, she portrayed a real man.

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