All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The click of castanets leads into other rhythmic percussion and is soon joined in perfect beat and harmony by the graceful stomp of Flamenco dancers, their skirts flowing to the sound of Osvaldo Golijov’s excitingly evocative music.
Guitars, strummed in the rhythms of Andalusia and La Mancha, are also part of Goljov’s impressive arsenal of sounds that speak of Spain and its musical traditions. The composer’s score for his opera, “Ainadmar,” is rich in affectionate reference to music that indicates immediately the land that sets the political, narrative, and spiritual tone for his work. Reminders of Spanish culture comes in waves, the castanets and guitars followed by strains that seem so familiar but never become a cliché. Golijov is too creative, too clever for that. His music for “Ainadamar” is elegant and witty. The abundant Spanish overtones define a place and celebrate centuries of beats, rhythms, and melodies the romance of which belie what is happening in Spain in 1936 when Falangists led by Franciso Franco represent the antithesis of grace, poetry, and gentility.
Golijov covers that too. The opening bars of “Ainadamar” suggest war and make one think of “Guernica” and the battle between people who want a republican regime and people who back Franco’s dictatorship. These ideas are supported by projections that follow pre-show images of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and other brutal strongmen of Franco’s era. Harshness and starkness can also be found in some of Golijov’s vocal lines and in passages that serve as counterpoint for the traditional sounds of Spain.
The music for “Ainadamar” is a great triumph. It is always interesting. It seems always to be in motion, evoking feelings and open to the entire history of music from folk roots to lush romantic passages to accents of modern commentary. Listening to Goljov’s score is one of the pleasures of attending Opera Philadelphia’s production of “Ainadamar” at the Academy of Music. Golijov’s music is infinitely engaging and entertaining.
The narrative parts of the opera are not as consistently successful. Bows to modernity in the script rob it of the felicitous and cunning variety found in the music. Concepts are often simplistic, the story told in a kind of shorthand that doesn’t evoke the level of sweeping completeness so discernable in the score. The librettist, David Henry Hwang, a sturdy playwright with several significant credits (“M. Butterfly,” “Golden Child”), doesn’t go into the kind of detail that would give texture and facets to the story of the Spanish revolution represented by the persecution and execution of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca as told in the memory of one of his primary muses, the actress Margarita Xirgu. Many scenes, particularly the ones featuring Xirgu in exile in Uruguay, seem flat and prosaic, meant to impart basic information but not infused with the emotion and robustness of the score. Romance is missing. Xirgu sings about her longing for Lorca, her warning to him to leave Spain and go with her on the tour from which she never returned to her native country, but her words seem matter-of-fact, a point of conversation rather than a deep, heartfelt outpouring of love, disdain of revolution, appreciation, and regret.
Golijov’s vocal line also seems unadorned and conversational. It soars at points and gives soprano Maria Hinojosa Montenegro occasion to display her lovely and versatile voice, but it succumbs to the modern penchant to present dialogue and revelation without much melody and needs more passionate, concentrated arias.
The passion so evident in Golijov’s score doesn’t come to the vocal line. While Hwang’s story has some dramatic high points, the tension when Lorca is in the hands of the Falangists for example, it doesn’t engross, or even involve, you as much Golijov’s overall score does throughout “Ainadamar.”
In essence, director Luis De Tavira’s production for “Opera Philadelphia” is three shows. The first is the music conducted splendidly with vibrant life by Corrado Rovaris. The second is the first and third sequences dominated by Xirgu as she reminisces about Lorca and plays her final performance in his drama about a Spanish martyr, “Mariana Pineda.” The third is a middle sequence that shows Lorca a captive with two others of Franco’s forces in Granada. The first show cannot be praised enough. Golijov’s music is grand. The second show, the one that primarily features Xirgu is sterile in spite of a strong performance by Montenegro who acts well and sings gorgeously but cannot defeat the bare-boned simplicity of the libretto or its too frequent tiebacks to “Mariana Pineda,” a leitmotif that seems more repetitive than moving once you realize why that, among all of Lorca’s works, is used as a background and symbol for the production. De Tavira conceives some lovely visual moments, one in particular of Lorca and Xirgu holding hands as they approach eternity, but the passages that center on Xirgu lack dramatic intensity.
The third show, dominated by Lorca and the authorities that show the might and injustice of a totalitarian regime, has stirring moments, yet it too is too plain in its intention, too direct in his narrative and actions. You long for the grandeur and majesty of classic opera, the bold heartbreaking scene that is almost too painful to witness, but you get a sad, angering scene, one you respond to on an unemotional level because the unfairness and loss to come is a matter of understood and despised truth, but one that doesn’t touch your heart, send you into mourning, and make you decry an unjudicial police state like Franco’s with all the fiber of your being. A scene loaded with dramatic possibilities remains benign. Opera, and even theatrical plays, have to come to grips with a more frequent lack of texture, as if telling the audience something or even showing it blandly is a substitute for a visceral reaction to matters that affect lead characters, particularly matters of literal life and death. I know Hwang has to write to Golijov’s score, but both need to be longer. That is a greater burden to Golijov, who knows when he has made the musical statement he conceived and has produced a wonderful work, but opera is story as well as music, and the story requires expansion.
Spain is in Golijov’s music, but it’s not on De Tavira’s stage or in Hwang’s libretto. Flamenco dance and traditional passages in Golijov’s score make it clear where we are. So does even a passing knowledge of 20th century history. But you don’t feel the weight of revolution, and a war about to be won by the least admirable side, beyond fleeting mention that is not enough to set a tone of revulsion or even evoke danger except by declarative report. More has to be said about the conditions is Spain and various factions. More has to be made immediate and passionate about Lorca’s status and why Margarita urges him to come with her to Cuba and the tour that will keep her in South America for the remainder of her life, but a life that lasts decades longer than it would have in Spain, from which she has been banished.
There is drama to mine, but Hwang refers to it in passing rather than making it grip the audience’s consciousness and cement the overall scene and context for what happens to Lorca and by extension to Xirgu.
In the sequence devoted to him, Lorca seems resigned to his fate. There is no fight, no howl of injustice. For all of the fine aspects of Marina Pardo’s performance as Lorca, the dapper poet and man of style and culture, there’s no sign of fear or rage, grief or recrimination that registers as solid and volatilely dramatic. Lorca is taken into custody, the reason for which is never explained. He seems to take his capture with a “What else would one expect?” ennui and though we see a scene that includes brutality and others negotiating for their lives, we see a Lorca who is dispassionate and who seems to approach his promised demise with a shrug and a prayer. Any death scene is going to be moving on some level, especially when you intellectually understand the quality of the person being sacrificed, the conditions in which he is meeting his doom, and the unsavoriness of the people and institution taking his life. Theater, and opera by extension, has to be more than intellectual. It must be intrinsically moving. “Ainadamar” is not. Though it succeeds brilliantly when it comes to music and dance — I’ll get to the dance. — it disappoints in the one area in which classic opera excels, making the audience care about the characters beyond the scope of decent thought that has to make one reviled by Lorca’s fate and enchanted by Margarita’s loyalty, ardor, and consignment to a life of exile.
I mentioned that Hwang does not evoke Spain as clearly and indelibly as Golijov and De Tavira do (by his use of Flamenco throughout the production). In Margarita’s scenes, you aren’t even told she is in Uruguay. As far as “Ainadmar” is concerned she could be anywhere is South America. Uruguay makes the most sense because of the Peronist period in Argentina and other South American dictatorships that mirror Franco’s, but it would be nice to be told where our heroine is as we see and hear her reminiscences and the conditions in which she currently lives and works.
Dance is an integral part of “Ainadamar,” and De Tavira makes great use of it. Dance provides the commentary Hwang glosses over and punctuates several key scenes. The dancers, members of the Compañia Antonio Gades, act as a Greek-style chorus sweeping in to give a Spanish accent to scenes and physically represent what is happening. The Gades troupe adds liveliness to a production that needs a spark, and their presence is always welcome and telling in the sense of providing mood and action when a scene on its own doesn’t.
“Ainadamar” is Arabic for “fountain of tears,” the name of a fountain in Granada from which it is said Lorca was taken to the warehouse where his execution was staged. Two different kinds of projections enhance the idea of a fountain of tears. One is literal footage showing sights in Granada. The other is an image of pebbles that are surrounded by water, the tears referred to in Golijov’s title.
Lorca is an early martyr to the Falangist revolution. In his plays and poetry, he presages his own destiny by writing about people, mostly women, who have lost their lives for not behaving as political regime might require. One such woman in Mariana Pineda, a folk heroine in Spain because at the time of a 19th century revolution, she refused to tell the names or locations of rebels of whom her lover was one. Mariana was tortured by authorities and put to death for her silence. A statue commemorating her martyrdom stands in Granada and influenced Lorca is his early years there. His play, “Mariana Pineda” is a tribute to the young woman’s fidelity to her lover and other rebels. It is an evocative, poetic work that is referred to throughout “Ainadamar,” especially as regards Margarita Xirgu, and would have been useful as model to Hwang about how to give more dramatic texture to “Ainadamar.”
The martial sounds heard at the beginning of “Ainadamar” give way to a folk tune the chorus sings about mourning “Marianita” killed for her loyalty to the revolutionary cause. The anthem is the first lines of Lorca’s play. They set a tone that loses some impact by the frequency with which the hymn to Mariana is used.
Margarita Xirgu, at age 80 in 1969, is about to give one more performance as Mariana Pineda, a role she originated in Spain in 1929, the year Lorca wrote the play. As she prepares to go on, she recalls Lorca and that first production, She also thinks about Lorca and his slaughter seven years later, one that is cognate to the killing of Mariana. She tells her thoughts to one of her many acting students, Nuria, who is dressed in the habit of a nun, her part in Xirgu’s production.
Margarita’s meeting with Lorca is recalled as well as the promise he shows as a poet and dramatist. She speaks of being his muse and how proud she has been to be the first to play Lorca’s lead characters and how true she’s been about keeping his oeuvre alive during her exile in South America, a productive exile in which Xirgu remains a major theatrical star.
The passages are informative but, once again, tell the story too plainly and without dramatic ups and downs.
The act concentrating on Lorca is more insidious. Although in a bland, matter-of-fact way, we hear the call to arms and the fate awaiting rebels in the plaintive and affecting wail of Alfredo Tejada as a soldier and leader in Franco’s brigades. The scene is ominous. Lorca is taken with a one-legged teacher and a bullfighter to a vacant warehouse where soldiers torment and bark at him but never really state his offense or how it harms the Falangist initiative. Lorca is called a poet, and a homosexual, as if they are poisonous enough as accusations to justify his murder. No rational or dangerous charge is lodged against him, the teacher, or the torero. They are simply rounded up, reviled, and scheduled without benefit of trail for death. The audience should be on tenterhooks, on the edge of their seats with worry for Lorca and revulsion for the coarse soldiers, led with military discipline by a leader portrayed well by Patrick Guetti, but as I’ve mentioned (and mentioned and mentioned), the emotion is absent from the scene.
The last act, with Xirgu faltering as she is about to make an entrance, has some lovely visuals, including the one I cited about Xirgu and Lorca, standing in death and near-death on the threshold of a paradise beautifully represented by a projection that suggests peace and the strength of healing nature.
Maria Hinojosa Montenegro sings with strength and conviction as Margarita. She wants her story known and realizes her health is failing, and the occasion of this performance of “Mariana Pineda” might be the time to tell it. She chooses to impart it to her student, Nuria, played by Sarah Shafer, who has some lovely vocal moments singing in tandem with Montenegro and on her own as Nuria.
Montenegro satisfied all she is asked to do. She tried to interject emotion where she can, but the script does not support her. She can only go so far with Hwang’s spare libretto. Shafer’s voice blends well with Montenegro’s, and she is a fine audience. I keep wondering if Golijov or Hwang named their character Nuria in honor of the great Spanish actress Nuria Espert, who has carried on Xirgu’s tradition of performing in Lorca’s plays and who is mentioned in the Opera Philadelphia for “Ainadamar.” (Espert memorably performed the title role of Lorca’s “Yerma” in Philadelphia in 1972.)
Marina Pardo takes a suave, boulevardier stance as Lorca. Though he is a poet of the people and includes much traditional Spanish folklore in his plays, the Lorca we see is debonair in a perfect pin-striped suit and with perfect manners. Pardo gives him a veneer of seriousness and conveys some melancholy. Her singing is as rich as Montenegro’s and like Montenegro, her portrayal is complete to the extent Hwang will let it be. I would have liked to felt more empathy with Lorca at the time of his imminent demise. Pardo plays him a being accepting of what is about to befall him. More agitation or more challenge to Lorca’s captors would have gone a long way towards making the execution scene more affecting.
John Viscardi is handsome and testy as the bullfighter imprisoned with Lorca. Andrew Bogard manages to muster sympathy as the teacher, especially when Guetti’s soldiers knock him off of the crutch that supports him. Justine Anderson and Kelly Ann Bixby manage a lovely harmony as two young girls singing tribute to Mariana Pineda. The most bravura singing of the evening was Alfredo Tejada’s as he called troops to order and sang the message to Spain from Franco and the Falangists.
Chorus work was efficient, and the Gades dancers were magnificent.
“Ainadamar” runs through Sunday, February 16 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia. Remaining shows are set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 12, 8 p.m. Friday, February 14, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, February 16. Tickets can be obtained by calling 215-893-1018 or going online to www.operaphila.org.