You can count on the fingers of one hand the composers who are likely to carry on the future of opera. New operas continue to come from older, established artists, and opera companies continue to make the hefty and often under-appreciated investment in new work. But fresh voices who write music that appeals to critics and audiences alike, who have the innate gift for drama and vocal melody, and who can work out ideas over the large arcs of a full-length opera -- composers who can do all that are sadly few.
It's a sign of artistic good health at the Santa Fe Opera that if you make the effort to visit the wind-swept open-air theater that hosts this country's most prestigious summer opera festival, you are very likely to hear something by one of this younger generation. In recent years, operas by Bright Sheng and Kaija Saariaho have had major premieres here. Next year will feature the American premiere of "The Tempest" by Thomas Ades, perhaps the most exciting young composer of our time. And late last month Osvaldo Golijov's 2003 "Ainadamar," a fantasy about the art and death of the dramatist and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, was given its first full staging, in an expanded version staged by Peter Sellars.
"Ainadamar" is a meditation on grief, a 75-minute fantasy about Garcia Lorca and the actress Margarita Xirgu, who loved and nurtured him, and ultimately mourned his death at the hands of the Spanish Fascists in 1936. It has little plot, but unfolds in dreamlike episodes that capture the meeting of Xirgu and Garcia Lorca, his capture and execution, and finally, her death and transfiguration. Its power lies in its pure emotional authenticity, the genuine sense of trauma that the unnecessary and brutal death of this young man wreaks on the people who fell under his charismatic spell.
When it was first performed at Tanglewood two years ago, "Ainadamar" was not initially popular with critics. Sellars was called in to direct, and a better-received version was heard in Los Angeles last year. The tinkering continues, and the version in Santa Fe has yet more new material.
Perhaps "Ainadamar" suffered by comparison with Golijov's "La Pasion Segun San Marcos" (St. Mark Passion), a breathtakingly good piece first heard in 2000. This wildly eclectic and exotic take on the traditional biblical passion (the oratorio-like form that Bach raised to such astonishing heights) established the composer as a major force, demonstrating a kaleidoscopic musical imagination. "Ainadamar" is the first large-scale work from the composer since "La Pasion," but while it is technically his first opera, it has a little too much of the same feel as the earlier work. Though the music is vibrant, the drama is all in the heads of the major players, and it unfolds in bright but static chapters.
The strength, and ultimately the weakness, of "Ainadamar," with its impressionistic libretto by David Henry Hwang, is the composer's tendency to work in short, propulsive musical chapters. Golijov, an Argentine of Jewish and Eastern European descent, who has lived in Israel and the United States, has an easy facility with the abstractions of contemporary music and the folk rhythms of at least three continents. Jazz, salsa, klezmer and delicious flights of dissonance all jangle together in a style that never wants for color and accessibility. His music is layered, with rhythms and cross-rhythms the essential ground. Voices are added over this pulsing, throbbing, pounding spine, sinuous vocal lines that often have the modal skips and turns that make Spanish music so sad and sultry at the same time.
Golijov is drawn to extremes of color, ominous low gongs and bright trumpet riffs made even more nasal by the use of mutes, or the high, eerie sound of strings playing harmonics. But he is also drawn to the simple, pulse-quickening device of the crescendo, the long, slow build of sound into a juggernaut of increasing volume and intensity. And too many of the musical episodes of "Ainadamar" fall back on this device.
The problem of whipping up a musical frenzy is essentially architectural. What do you do after you have reached the catharsis point? Do you draw back slowly, and fritter away the excitement to establish a new mood? Do you bring the audience back suddenly from the brink of ecstasy? The great bel canto composers of the 19th century struggled with this question, the what-next problem of building an evening-length drama out of smaller musical forms that almost always end in a heart-racing display of vocal pyrotechnics. And so, too, Golijov today. "Ainadamar" desperately needs transitional material, and fewer potboiler-style chapter endings.
That said, it is filled with gorgeous music, and it passes the first and ultimate test of opera: The characters are defined by the music they sing -- and that music is often hauntingly beautiful. Garcia Lorca, sung by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, is musically seductive, palpably charismatic, and clearly a force of intoxicating power on the characters around him. From his arrival to his death, he has the audience's sympathy, as a young man not only lost in his artistic dreams, but able to draw those around him into the mesmerizing labyrinth as well. The vocal part is written for a woman who has a low, throaty, androgynous voice, and O'Connor is well suited for the part. She makes a strangely sexy yet sexless sound, the kind of sound that made one wonder if it was really coming from a woman's mouth. Yet in later scenes she was capable of almost Straussian orgies of feminine sounds.
That was especially so when she sang with Dawn Upshaw, who as Xirgu is the real star of the evening. Upshaw captured all of the theatrical hauteur of a woman who knew her own talent and beauty, and yet she also found the core of humanity in the character, the core that was touched by Garcia Lorca and ultimately pierced by his death. Upshaw was forced to sing throughout the full range of her voice, sent by Golijov's demanding lines into the guttural lower depths, a raspy, breathy, too-many-cigarettes range that sounds almost like speaking, and into the stratosphere, where she soared above the controlled chaos of the orchestra. In its highest range, Upshaw's soprano is pure and clear, but with a little dark hole in the center of the tone that makes it distinctive and vulnerable. Upshaw and O'Connor were joined by Jessica Rivera (as Nuria, Xirgu's friend and student) in at least one trio of surpassing tenderness.
The stage design, reminiscent of Picasso's "Guernica," was by the artist known only as Gronk. It was a simple design, a busy and violent backdrop of shapes and figures that filled three walls of the stage. The all-women's chorus was dressed simply in black, as were Upshaw and Rivera. Two soldiers in fatigues brought violence into the basic Greek-tragedy setting. Sellars brought a simple, minimal coherence to the action, with gestures that were at turns strikingly natural and theatrically artificial. The orchestra, which included substantial electronic additions (recorded music, voices, sound effects), was deftly conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya.