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Review: Patchy poetry in Long Beach Opera's 'Ainadamar'

The Long Beach Opera offers up a generic take on 'Ainadamar,' Osvaldo Golijov's reflection on the murder of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

May 22, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Suzan Hanson at the dress rehearsal of Long Beach Opera's West Coast premiere of Oswald Golijov's "Ainadamar."
Suzan Hanson at the dress rehearsal of Long Beach Opera's West Coast… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Long Beach Opera's new production of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar" comes at an important time. The opera is a meditation on the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca's murder by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, which is ever relevant, especially in the way the work echoes the current situation in the Middle East.

But there is another reason why this opera matters right now, despite LBO's somewhat slapdash production at Terrace Theater Sunday night. Golijov has been going through a bad patch, and we need to be reminded why the music world would be unwise to lose faith in him.

He has missed deadlines, including for a violin concerto that was to have been premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic a year ago. He has also come under attack for plagiarism by "gotcha" critics who miss the larger context of his work and what makes it so culturally rich and pertinent.

The Argentine composer, who lives in the Boston area and was in the last decade considered America's (and the Americas') hottest composer, is apparently laying low. His website hasn't been updated in more than a year. He did not accept an invitation to attend Sunday's performance.

"Ainadamar," which has a libretto by David Henry Hwang, has had a troubled history much chronicled in these pages. When it premiered at Tanglewood in 2003, the opera was a mess but with flashes of brilliance. Co-commissioned by the L.A. Phil, the opera was mildly improved by the time it reached Walt Disney Concert Hall a year later.

Peter Sellars oversaw a complete rewrite of both the libretto and score for Santa Fe Opera, and the result was one of the most moving and meaningful operas of our time. That Santa Fe production by the L.A. director, and with an extraordinary mural set by L.A. artist Gronk, will be mounted atMadrid'sTeatro Real, Spain's leading opera company, next month.

Meanwhile, LBO went its own way with generic staging and designs by the company's artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, and generic video projections by Frieder Weiss — the team responsible for an uneven but more ambitious production of Philip Glass' "Akhnaten" last season. "Ainadamar" looked simply thrown together.

Mitisek covered the stage right up to the lip and over the pit with a sheet. Cutouts permitted characters to pop up or sink underground. The orchestra was placed unseen in the back.

This seems to be the current fashion. The L.A. Phil's "Don Giovanni" and The Industry's "Crescent City" have put their orchestras out of the way, as well. There were balance problems aplenty Sunday, especially with amplification involved.

"Ainadamar" is the fountain of tears in Granada, where Lorca was shot in 1936 for his subversive poetry. Golijov reveals the poet in flashbacks through the eyes of the dying actress, Margarita Xirgu, who recounts Lorca's story to her protégé Nuria. Weiss' projections create mood but not place. Mitisek's staging is blandly sacramental. Margarita dies under enough candelabras to furnish the Addams family's manor.

But nothing can take away from a wondrous world music score that recalls a 15th century golden age Granada where Jewish, Muslim and Christian culture productively intermixed. Flamenco, Klezmer, Middle Eastern chant and modern electronics are all in Golijov's arsenal and the atmosphere and the sounds that Golijov gets from the orchestra are magical.

Some of that came through in the singing as well. Long Beach Opera regulars — soprano Suzan Hanson (Margarita), mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell (Lorca) and soprano Ani Maldjian (Margarita's student Nuria) — were impressively expressive, but they have yet to inhabit their characters. Steven R. Osgood's conducting was speedy and efficient. It is a short opera and there is no need to rush.

Lorca's death, however, was permitted its excruciating, incomparable beauty. Blue light made the sheets sparkle and the orchestra produced a shimmering atmosphere. The souls of the poet and fellow anti-fascists ascended heavenward in the form of flying acrobats. This worked.

"Ainadamar", Terrace Theater, Long Beach, 8 p.m. Saturday, $29 to $150, (565) 432-4934, 1 hour, 12 minutes


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