LB OPERA’S “AINADAMAR:” A TRIUMPH OF CHARACTER OVER CARICATURESBy Greggory Moore
The more contemporary opera I see, the more I like opera. Of course, most all the contemporary opera I’m seeing is being put on by Long Beach Opera, our own world-class contribution to the art form.
LBO’s latest triumph is Osvaldo Golijov and David Henry Hwang’s Ainadamar, a story of actress Margarita Xirgu flashing back on her connection to poet/playwright Federico Garcia Lorca as [picking up the program notes now] “during the last moments of her life she tries to convey to her young student, Nuria, the fire, the passion, and the hope for her generation that gave birth to the Spanish Republic”—as well as the didactic thread that keeps Lorca, as well as all teachers and freedom-lovers, alive.
Ainadamar springs to life with an opening of transmogrified marching footsteps and gunshots that morphs into a flamenco cadence as we are introduced to opera’s primary motif. We meet Margarita (Suzan Hanson), obviously ill and being attended by Nuria (Ani Maldjian). Hanson displays complete command of her role from the outset. Every gesture seems organic, with Hanson’s redoubtable voice arising so naturally from the emotion of the moment that the notes ring out almost a perfect afterthought.
Director Andreas Mitisek seems to have coached his cast to play the subtleties, which results in nuances more generally akin to theatre—good theatre—than classic operatic scale. The payoff is immediate, as the tenderness between Margarita and Nuria is earned without our having to suspend disbelief in the face of a bunch of larger-than-life gestures.
With an economy of staging and some spot-on lighting fabric, Mitisek evokes the 1927 barroom meeting between Margarita and Lorca. Peabody Southwell imbues Lorca with a poetic swagger and a wide-eyed adoration of the ideal. (“To grow old, my child, is a fate he escaped,” Margarita tells Nuria of Lorca, who at the age of 37 was murdered by the totalitarian forces of Francisco Franco.)
I lack the technical expertise and to convey what I heard in operatic terminology. I can tell you that the LBO Orchestra just killed it, sailing between Golijov’s pensive swirls of texture to exciting climaxes of percussive ferocity as if they were born to play at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. Vocally, there isn’t a singer in this cast who doesn’t nail it, from the eight women in the ensemble to the most minor characters to the three principals. Maldjian has the least showy of the lead roles—but when she gets her ripping soprano moment in the opera’s third act, holy god is it breathtaking!
The rapport between the singers is locked in. Musically, the introduction of Lorca may start off a bit sleepily, but when Golijov makes it interesting by enmeshing the principals, Hanson, Maldjian, and Southwell neatly pirouette their voices together in a sort of acoustical ballet. Whenever vocalists sing together, they always find each other and the orchestra. And aside from a distorted, bullhorn-ish voice representing Franco (or a proxy) that’s a bit too low in the mix, the sound of Ainadamar is immaculate.
The subtlety that Mitisek champions in Ainadamar means the blocking usually operates beneath the radar, but it is always effective. And that effectiveness holds equally well in the few scenes where things bustle a bit. Chief among these is the sequence when Lorca is taken by Franco’s forces. Mitisek and choreographer Nannette Brodie play the sequence as an expressionistic dance number, and it rings with Margarita’s emotional truth as she plays out the terrible sealing of Lorca’s fate in her imaginings.
The most arresting visual moments come as Ainadamar winds to its conclusion. With little more than timing and a few well-used lighting implements Mitisek makes sure we leave the theatre with a vision perfectly complementing the glory that lives on when we pass on the light of truth that we have carried forth during our leg of the journey of humankind. “Children can read now,” Lorca says as he nears his execution. “They will ask questions.”
AINADAMAR LONG BEACH OPERA • TERRACE THEATRE (300 E OCEAN BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.432.5934 LONGBEACHOPERA.ORG • SATURDAY 8PM • $29–$150 • FINAL PERFORMANCE: MAY 26