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Golijov’s Ainadamar Captivates Philadelphia

Perelman Theatre of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
03/14/2008 -  and March 15, 16
Osvaldo Golijov: Ainadamar
Layla Claire (Margarita Xirgu), Katherine Lerner (Federico García Lorca), Amanda Majeski (Nuria), Joshua Stewart (Ruiz Alonso), Evan Hughes (José Tripaldi), Brian Zachary Porter (Maestro), Jason Coffey (Torero), Michelle Asadourian, Emilyn Badgley (Voices of the Fountain)
The Curtis Symphony Orchestra, Corrado Rovaris (conductor)
David Zinn (scenic design), Richard St. Clair (costume design), Mark Barton (lighting design), Brian Mohr (sound design), César Abreu (choreography), Chas Rader-Shieber (stage director)

Philadelphia has never been a center of contemporary opera. Maybe that is changing. A month after the Opera Company of Philadelphia performed David DiChiera’s Cyrano, Curtis Opera Theatre is giving Philadelphians the chance to hear Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar. Golijov’s opera stirred up enormous interest when it was premiered five years ago at the Tanglewood Festival. Revised for a Santa Fe production in 2004, this 80-minute score has been recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and performed in New York, Chicago and other cities. The local premiere drew a capacity audience to the Perelman Theatre Friday evening.

Inspired by the execution of Federico García Lorca, playwright David Henry Hwang has fashioned a libretto that portrays the Spanish playwright’s tragic death through an aging actress’s memories. Curtis Opera Theatre, with some help from the OCP, mounted a gripping production. Starkly staged and strongly sung, the production showed why Golijov's score has been acclaimed. Ainadamar is not so much an opera as an 80-minute musical meditation in three scenes. It resembles a painter's triptych: a central panel portraying García Lorca's execution, surrounded by the haunted memories of Margarita Xirgu, the Catalan actress renowned for her performances of his plays in Latin America after her exile from Spain.

Golijov launches his score with trumpet fanfares that recall the opening of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. He ends it by interweaving women's voices in a trio that soars like the one Strauss composed for Der Rosenkavalier. This eclectic, kaleidoscopic score combines earthy Spanish rhythms with Arabic melismas, flamenco flourishes and Jewish-flavored melodies. The vibrant music is filled with intense colors, deepened by Golijov’s use of recorded voices and natural sounds. The composer creates a hypnotic effect in one scene after another. High points are the haunting arrest and execution scenes and the ecstatic finale in which Xirgu achieves a spiritual transfiguration before her death. Ainadamar needs all the color Golijov can squeeze from his score. Long stretches of the opera offer little character development and no dramatic conflict.

Stage director Chas Rader-Shieber and his designer, David Zinn, set Ainadamar in a backstage dressing room as Xirgu arrives to play the heroine in Mariana Pineda, García Lorca’s portrayal of a 19th-century revolutionary heroine. A chorus from the play - a ballad repeated over and over - ties together the various parts of the opera. Rader-Shieber tries to find visual drama in this static stage work. He effectively places the officer who arrests García Lorca in a black silhouette set against a red backdrop above the stage. But limiting the action to the dressing room creates problems in scenes like Xirgu’s meeting with García Lorca in a bar, to say nothing of the execution. Rader-Shieber cannot resist starting the opera with a little boy (obviously the young García Lorca) traipsing across the stage in a woman’s high heels. The boy returns at the end. Why?

The musical performance is led by Corrado Rovaris, OCP's music director. He shapes Golijov's music vividly. With her porcelain skin and auburn hair, Layla Claire hardly suggests an aging Spanish actress, but she sings radiantly. Although her pure soprano lacks color, it soars through Margarita's vocal lines. Golijov suggests García Lorca's ambiguous sexuality by writing the role for a mezzo-soprano. Katherine Lerner convincingly portrays the playwright and, after a weak beginning, sings attractively. To Xirgu's student, Nuria, Amanda Majeski brings a silver-toned voice that blends beautifully with Claire's and Lerner's in the trio.

Robert Baxter



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