by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 1, 2003.
Osvaldo Golijov’s chamber opera “Ainadamar,” which had its première at Tanglewood earlier this month, lasts about an hour, but it feels like a surreally extended moment, a long blink of an eye. The libretto, by the playwright David Henry Hwang, places us in a theatre in Uruguay, in the nineteen-sixties, where a venerable actress is about to step onstage for what will turn out to be her last performance. As she waits in the wings, she is overcome by a surge of memories, both happy and harrowing. The character is based on a real figure: Margarita Xirgu, the great Catalan tragedian, who, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, collaborated with Federico García Lorca on several of his most famous plays. Joining her, in a series of dreamlike flashbacks, is Lorca himself, whose high ideals and dark passions dictate the opera’s tone.
Golijov is a forty-two-year-old Argentine-American composer who has an uncanny ability to don the masks of age-old musical traditions. Born in La Plata, he is descended from Eastern European Jews, and he first made his name with works derived from klezmer and other Yiddish styles. Three years ago, he unveiled the “St. Mark Passion,” a singing, dancing Crucifixion drama, which revels in Latin-American and Afro-Caribbean sounds. His works arouse extraordinary enthusiasm in audiences, because they revive music’s elemental powers: they have rhythms that rock the body into motion and melodies that linger in the mind. Golijov lacks the intellectual caution that leads composers to confine a quasi-tonal melody within knotty, twelve-tone-ish figures. Instead, he lets his melodies wing their way into the open air.
Lorca makes a natural subject for an opera. His famous death—he was executed by Fascist soldiers early in the Spanish Civil War—was a scene out of “Tosca.” He also supplies countless cues for music in his writing. No other poet could have compared the crescent moon to a fermata, a held note interrupting the harmony of the night. He was an accomplished pianist, a part-time composer, and something of a musicologist. He worked with Manuel de Falla to stage a festival of the authentic form of cante jondo, or “deep song,” as the most substantial branch of flamenco is known. Of the siguiriya form of cante jondo, Lorca wrote, “The melody begins, an undulant, endless melody. [It] loses itself horizontally, escapes from our hands as we see it withdraw from us toward a point of common longing and perfect passion.” This description also captures the essence of Golijov’s music.
The first lines of “Ainadamar” come from Lorca’s historical drama “Mariana Pineda,” whose heroine died for liberal ideals in nineteenth-century Granada. The aging Xirgu, preparing to play the role for the umpteenth time, recalls her pioneering performance back in 1927; it was this production, with sets by Dali, that launched Lorca’s dramatic career. The relationship of author and actress was not a physical one—neither opted for the heterosexual life style—but they worked together in a kind of creative ecstasy. As the opera tells it, she is deeply haunted by Lorca’s death, which she believes she could have prevented. It happened in August, 1936, in the place that the Moors called Ainadamar, or Fountain of Tears. According to Lorca’s biographer Leslie Stainton, Xirgu heard of the killing just before performing “Yerma”; in a rage, she changed her final line from “I myself have murdered my own child” to “They have murdered my child.”
The opera begins with prerecorded sounds that contain traces of the Lorca world. You first hear gurgling water, presumably from Ainadamar’s springs, then furious galloping patterns, which evoke the violent hoofbeats that the poet heard in his nightmares. In a brilliant stroke, three percussionists pick up the beat with drumming and clapping, in a dynamic pattern of four against six against twelve. Over this a chorus of six girls cry out the opening ballad of “Mariana Pineda”—“How sad it was in Granada / The stones began to cry.” When Xirgu reflects on her younger self, the flamenco furor gives way to a rumba, and we fall into a languid, late-summer suspension of time. The part of Lorca is played by a handsome young mezzo-soprano; this, perhaps, is a nod in the direction of Xirgu’s (or Lorca’s) sexuality. The poet once imagined a version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which Juliet became a fifteen-year-old boy.
For all his provocations, Lorca had no fear of exploiting traditional images of Spanish culture. As a dramatist, he knew that clichés could thunder if spoken in the right tone. Golijov, likewise, invests himself ardently in the most familiar flourishes of Spanish music. He understands better than his exoticizing European predecessors—think of Bizet, with his castanets—that the so-called “Spanish sound” is a fiendishly complex blend of European, Arabic, and Hebraic influences, and he teases out all of them in turn. The Fascist functionary Ramón Ruiz Alonso condemns Lorca in a wailing cantillation that sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer than like a salute to Franco. The writer, whom Ruiz Alonso branded a maricón, or “faggot,” is led to his death in a fantasy reënactment of the Crucifixion, which is solemnized by intimations of a Gregorian chant. Golijov even makes music of the guns that end Lorca’s life, transforming the sound of the shots into a percussive electronic ballet.
In the closing section of the opera, composer and librettist took a considerable risk that didn’t quite pay off on opening night. The action becomes almost entirely inward: Xirgu, musing further on her life, comes to accept the role of survivor that she has played. “I have done my best to keep you alive, to pay for my crime: the crime of living,” she sings. She walks onstage to sing Mariana’s final monologue, and falls dead. The Tanglewood production, which was directed by Chay Yew, strained to find visual cues in this last part. The young Xirgu and Lorca wandered on and off the stage, a blown-up photograph of the poet descended, and Lorca came back for a final pantomime appearance. Despite many poetic touches, Yew’s production failed to differentiate reality from fantasy, the elderly Xirgu from her complex of memories.
Something different should be done with the ending when the opera comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, at the end of October, and to Los Angeles’s new Disney Hall, in February. It is difficult to think of anything that could be cut; the music is sensationally beautiful throughout. Xirgu’s epiphany takes the form of two spellbinding orchestral crescendos, one called “Delirious Sunset” and the other “I Am Liberty.” While Golijov was working on the opera, he found himself listening to the not very Spanish strains of Richard Strauss’s “Daphne,” and in particular to the sublime Transformation Scene, during which the nymph of the title turns into a laurel tree. Although there are no outright echoes of “Daphne” in “Ainadamar,” you can sense the kinship: in each, a heaving polyphonic climax gives way to a quiet release. At the very end, Golijov asks his brass players to improvise freely on the single note C, creating a strange, shimmering drone, while the chorus repeats in muted tones the lament of the opening.
Tanglewood has a limited but excellent track record with modern operas. In 1942, Serge Koussevitzky, the music center’s founder, gave Benjamin Britten a thousand dollars to write “Peter Grimes.” The singers and players at the “Ainadamar” première, most of whom came from Tanglewood’s student ranks, were at a fairly exalted level. Robert Spano, who led the “St. Mark Passion” in Boston two years ago, once again showed staggering control of Golijov’s genre-busting variety of styles. Dawn Upshaw, in the role of Xirgu, dropped some of the cutesiness that she has lately favored and sang with unaffected intensity and thrust. Kelley O’Connor and Amanda Forsythe, both Tanglewood Vocal Fellows, showed crystalline, finely expressive voices in the roles of Lorca and Young Margarita.
On the same evening, Tanglewood presented another new chamber opera with a hot-and-heavy Spanish theme. This was Robert Zuidam’s “Rage d’Amours,” which told of the strange, obsessive love of Queen Juana, the nominal ruler of Castile, for her unfaithful and later lifeless husband, Philip the Handsome. In a climactic set piece that one-ups Salome’s sickening love for John the Baptist, Juana holds Philip’s decomposing corpse in a desperate embrace. If it sounds ghoulishly entertaining, it wasn’t; the music was weirdly solemn and static—a little corpselike itself. Zuidam showed impeccable craftsmanship, but he leaned heavily on hoary devices of twentieth-century technique, making much, for example, of the gruff bass-clarinet arpeggios from “The Rite of Spring.” Unlike the flamenco touches in “Ainadamar,” these intellectually gratifying references carried with them no dramatic specificity or strong emotional charge. The frustrating sense of distance was not helped by the fact that the part of Juana was divided up among a trio of sopranos. Lucy Shelton, Rochelle Bard, and Amy Synatzske all sang beautifully, but as a kind of diva committee they were never entirely in sync. The student players, under the direction of Stefan Asbury, played with extreme virtuosity.
The trouble with having two premières side by side is that the evening inevitably became something of a popularity contest. Zuidam received respectful applause; Golijov won a shouting, stomping ovation. No doubt a few old-school Tanglewood cerebralists went away complaining that Golijov had pandered to the audience. If so, they were pandering to their teaching assistants. The composer is triumphing not because he uses an accessible language—anyone can string together superficially pleasing chords—but because he speaks it with dire conviction. His sincerity is avant-garde.
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