Feb. 11--Ainadamar isn't really an opera but a whirlwind -- intoxicating, exciting, and ultimately troubling -- whose 90 intermissionless minutes leaves viewers wondering what hit them.
Osvaldo Golijov's opera was imposing enough in a Curtis production in the Kimmel Center's smallish-scale Perelman Theater in 2008. Now it has been brought back by Opera Philadelphia in a larger, imported-from-Spain co-production that has no trouble enveloping the Academy of Music, and is easily among the most stimulating theatrical events, operatic or not, so far this season.
This meditation on the 1936 assassination of poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca is recounted in flashbacks by the actress Margarita Xirgu, Lorca's soulmate, which means Ainadamar lacks a linear plot. The absence of chronological regimentation supports the production's multi-layered theatricality, from modern computer animation to archival film footage of 1930s Spain to choreography devised by Stella Arauzo for the revered Compania Antonio Gades dancers that goes well beyond flamenco.
Golijov's effortlessly ethnic score, which initially feels like a warm bath, is actually a canny piece of operatic theater with well-calculated peaks and valleys and increasingly stark contrasts: When it hits a particularly congenial moment -- Margarita persuading Lorca to come on tour with her to Cuba -- it won't be long before flamenco footfalls have a duet with the gunshots that kill him.
So effectively does the music penetrate one's consciousness that there's little risk of visual distraction: The music seems to color everything around it, intensifing the whole. One could argue that Ainadamar, and this production in particular, achieves Wagner's theory of Gesamtkunstwerk (total art) more fluidly than Wagner.
Given the many layers, one is likely to take exception somewhere. Brief allusions to Christ in David Henry Hwang's libretto inspire a crown of thorns on the video screen and director Luis de Tavira's version of the Last Supper, in which Lorca breaks bread. Wasn't he a literary martyr, not a religious one?
The cast's dusky Iberian voices require amplification. Maria Hinojoso Montenegro as Margarita sounds nothing like the brighter-voiced originator of the role, Dawn Upshaw, and has plenty of vocal mileage. But she feels authentic, as does Marina Pardo in the trouser role of Lorca. The vernacular voice of Alfredo Tejada (as Falangist officer Ramon Ruiz Alonso) sounds like pitched yelling and can make your blood run appropriately cold. Is it any surprise that American soprano Sarah Shafer, as Margarita's student Nuria, gets a bit lost in the shuffle?
Amid this, Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris (who has conducted this production in Spain) consciously backed away from the feverishness of past conductors. Smart move. If anything could frame this rambunctious piece, it would have to be calm.
Music by Osvaldo Golijov. Libretto by David Henry Hwang. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris. Directed by Luis de Tavira. Choreography by Stella Arauzo. Set and lighting design by Philippe Amand.
Maria Hinojosa Montenegro ... Margarita Xirgu
Marina Pardo ... Garcia Lorca
Sarah Shafer ... Nuria
Alfredo Tejada . . . Ramon Ruiz Alonso
Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus and Compania Antonio Gades.
Performances Feb. 12, 14, 16 at the Academy of Music. Tickets: $10-$232. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.operaphila.org.
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