Friday, January 27, 2006

I have opinions about opera too...

...even if I don't know dick about it. Yesterday I saw Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar at Lincoln Center. He's supposed to be the cat's pajamas in modern classical music today. The opera is about the memories of actress Margarita Xingu of the murder of her friend, poet Federico García Lorca in the Spanish Civil War. It's about the attempt by totalitarian forces to murder art and freedom, with a libretto By David Henry Hwang. I loved the music of Ainadamar, a very accessible blend of flamenco and Spanish and Latin styles with beautiful, powerful melodies, and the use of tabla and a fantastic Flamenco "cantaor" and laptops and sound effects. Surprisingly, I expected something a little bit more challenging musically. Ainadamar really uses a lot of popular musical idioms, so it sounds relatively easy to digest. Still, it is very rewarding. Dawn Upshaw, in the role of Margarita, sang and acted her heart out with a magnificent soaring voice. So did Jessica Rivera, as Nuria, her student. Kelly O'Connor, the mezzosoprano in the role of Federico García Lorca, sang amazingly but I was hoping they would kill her off and fast. The problem, I believe, was in the staging by director Peter Sellars, who is also supposed to be, like we say in Mexico, the last Coca-Cola in the desert. The stage was empty, surrounded by a painting with Guernica overtones (pretty old hat, if you ask moi). There were no props. There is lots of jumping ahead and backwards in time and space, from Spain to Uruguay, to a dream of Havana in the plot but it's not easy to figure it out if you don't read Sellars explanatory notes in the program. Dude, if you have to explain that much, you're not doing your job, which is to communicate the story clearly to the audience. The one saving grace I saw in this interpretation is that the lack of conventional storytelling with the aid of scenery and props allowed the audience to really connect to the music, because not much was happening on the stage. There were a couple of nice images, like the women in the choir evoking pealing bells with their bodies, but most of the time the singers were just standing there or embracing each other, which has got to be the most boring thing an audience can see on a stage. In the little opera I've seen there always seems to be something ridiculous going on. In this case, most of it came from Ms. O'Connor's demeanor on stage. She was wearing what looked like a crumpled, ill fitting, seersucker suit, that distracted me to no end. The short jacket seemed to creep up her very wide hips, rendering useless the illusion that she's supposed to be a gay male poet, and an elegant, fastidious dresser at that. Her slicked back hair came undone after a few jerks of her head, so that didn't help either. Would it kill her to get a proper haircut for the role?
But most of all, in her suffering, she seemed to squirm like a clam under lime juice. She seemed pathetic, instead of dignified. Now, Garcia Lorca may have been a major faygeleh, but he is a heroic figure, and I don't appreciate watching him run aimlessly around the stage, bumping into the walls, crouching with his ass in the air, whimpering for mercy. I do not blame Ms. O'Connor, who does have an otherworldly voice, but the director. Another detail like something out of a high school production, was that the Spanish Civil Guard soldiers were dressed in flashy camouflage fatigues like bored Marines in Iraq. Really, that kind of symbolism seems to me infantile and heavy handed.
I was so bored with the production that I thought that maybe the truly radical idea would be to stage this opera in a conventional way, with more theatrical resources that could better evoke the painful sense of loss, and give the powerful, emotional music the dramatic impact it deserves.

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