It's not political? Peter Sellars reportedly claimed just that about his production of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar, now running at the Santa Fe Opera. Come, come, Mr. Sellars.
For one thing, anybody who's going to do an operatic or theatrical or epic rendering of the passion and death of ***image1***Federico García Lorca at the hands of Franco's Fascists in 1936 simply can't keep the politics out. And as Sellars, who's directing the show, makes perfectly clear, he's only partly interested in the politics of Spain in the '30s, the Spanish Civil War and the collapse of personal freedom and free institutions that ensued; he sees art as a mirror for the Right Now. Sellars wants us to stare into that pitiless glass and ask the question: Am I as free as I was five years ago? Especially if the face in the mirror is brown or poor or gay or female, it probably knows the answer.
Politics, a keen sense of the theatrical and collaboration have all been key for Ainadamar from its beginnings in 2002. That's when Golijov received a commission from the Boston Symphony for a work to be produced at Tanglewood in 2003. ***image2***The composer got in touch with playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang and, with the tightest of time frames, they put together a work about the relationship between Lorca and the great Catalan actress who created many of his female roles, Margarita Xirgu. The performers were to be Dawn Upshaw and, by contractual pre-arrangement, Tanglewood's women singers.
That hour-long production was madly successful and led to a reprise in Los Angeles the following February. Now, for its Santa Fe reincarnation a production-team Gang of Four-Golijov and Hwang joined by Sellers and the painter Gronk-have reconstrued the work as a one-act triptych, A Popular Ballad in Three Images, the subtitle borrowed from Lorca himself. They've revised the piece extensively, expanding the role of Xirgu and deepening the Spanish political context.
It's 1969. Margarita Xirgu, exiled and dying in Montevideo, recalls her role in a 1927 Lorca play, Mariana Pineda, the account of a revolutionary heroine executed in 1831 for her devotion to freedom. Parallels emerge among Mariana, Margarita and Federico. That's part one. In the middle section, the opera explores the relationship between Xirgu and Lorca, culminating in Lorca's 1936 decision in the face of the Fascist counter-revolution to return to his home in Granada. There, Fascist forces hunt him down and kill him at Ainadamar, the so-called fountain of tears, one of the killing places for the many, many thousands of "liberals" murdered by Franco's regime. The final section of the opera returns to the dying Xirgu as a meditation on the meaning of these tragic events in her life.
Golijov's music, saturated with Spanish and Latin elements, presents a departure from much of his earlier work. It's heavily percussive, often with a recorded underlay of sounds, voices, and instruments. You'll hear references to De Falla, Albeniz and Villa-Lobos as well as to Latin pop music from Brazil, Argentina and Cuba. There's a little Bernstein in there, and some salsa. Golijov electronically amplifies his singers, adding a touch of musical theater and the nightclub.
He can be achingly lyrical as in Lorca's slow waltz-aria, Desde mi ventana, and in the string glissandi plus amplified marimba that mourn the poet's death. A gorgeous, visionary, high-voiced trio for Lorca, Margarita, and her student Nuria recalls Rosenkavalier. The eight-member, black-clad female chorus makes ritualistic commentary on the action in the manner of Lorca's plays and, for that matter, Greek tragedy.
Hwang's libretto moves quickly, efficiently as this Spanish tragedy unfolds. Many of his metaphors likewise recall Lorca with their expression of "a fever for a theater that transforms lives." Los Angeles-based artist Gronk supplies an astonishing painting for the set, its walls and floor covered with multi-layered images that combine the violence of Guernica with the energy of the Latin muralists.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducts the complex score with authority and complete support from his singers. Dawn Upshaw, another of the major collaborators in Ainadamar's creation, is a radiant Margarita. Kelley O'Connor sings and enacts Lorca with powerful intensity. As Nuria, Jessica Rivera offers a pure, beautifully projected voice.
Like Brecht, Lorca constantly reminds his audience that we're in a theater, watching a play, an illusion, merely a dream, and so does this production with its footlights and stylized movement. But political theater insists that, as Yeats wrote, "in dreams begins responsibility" and that freedom is easier lost than found. Again, Sellars hands us the mirror. His costumer, Gabriel Berry, has dressed two cast-members in contemporary US desert-storm camouflage fatigues. They're Lorca's killers.