Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Family Ties

August 09, 2008

 
Monica Groop, Matthew Best, Pia Freund, and Joseph Kaiser.
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2008

This was a busy news day. Though I’m not sure most Americans would know it. CNN is awash in coverage about former Sen. John Edwards admitting to an extra-marital affair. NBC and the L.A. Times meanwhile are preoccupied with beautiful costumes and fireworks that marked the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Amidst all this so-called news, buried deeply (except at the New York Times where it was front and center this afternoon) are reports of military conflict between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia in a part of the world that has seen this sort of tragedy with a sad frequency. I’m not sure who’s going to be the winner in this conflict but I have a pretty good inkling who the losers will be.

I wager Kaija Saariaho and her collaborator Amin Maalouf know the answer to this question as well after seeing the U.S. premiere of their second operatic work, Adriana Mater here in Santa Fe. I had one prior exposure to it in 2006 during the world premiere run in Paris and I am just as convinced now that it is a powerful and moving work that is likely one of the first real operatic masterpieces of the the 21st century. (Alongside Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Adès’ The Tempest and Saariaho’s prior L’amour de Loin.) Set in an anonymous village in Eastern Europe or Asia, the piece concerns a young woman, Adriana, who is raped during a war by a man in the defending army she has known from her youth. She becomes pregnant and against the advice of her sister Refka, keeps the child whom she hopes will become something other than his father. As an adult, her son, Yonas, is enraged to discover the truth of his conception and vows to kill his father. However, when his father returns to their town, now old and blind, Yonas finds he is unable to enact the vengeance he has planned. Adriana finds this inaction liberating for her and her son noting that they are not avenged, but saved. All of this is cut with recurring dream sequences where characters recall events from dreams where they relive or imagine events related to their lives.

Saariaho’s score is dark and shimmering and gloriously beautiful. It was handled here with great sensitivity from Ernest Martinez Izquierdo who also helmed performances of the opera in Helsinki. He has a bit more of a straightforward approach to the opera than Esa-Pekka Salonen did in 2006, but it is still very effective. Peter Sellars’ production from that premiere run has been adapted to the smaller outdoor stage in Santa Fe. It maintains the bleak and minimal George Tsypin-designed huts but is forced to forgo the shadow effects that were prominent at the Bastille. The work now features a different cast with Monica Groop as Adriana, Pia Freund as her sister Refka, Matthew Best as Tsargo, and Joseph Kaiser as her son, Yonas. All were exceptional, but I was particularly taken with Groop’s earthy and intelligent performance. She infused Saariaho’s lyric vocal lines with real poignancy. This production also benefits from an absolutely incendiary turn from Kaiser. His rage and frustration are palpable and the tears on his face in the final scene looked awfully real. This is not a piece about action but one about catharsis, dreams, and blood. It is very sad and most of the time very beautiful.

This opera matters not just because of the relevance of it’s topic to current events, but because I would argue it represents something far different in opera. It’s a work about agency and in particular a woman’s agency to break a cycle of violence and hatred. The characters actually escape their fate by willing themselves to do so and no one must die to do so in a Wagnerian-style redemption. Or as Adriana puts it in Maalouf’s poetic libretto, blood means nothing. It's a work about simple human forgiveness and peace with no magic and that may make it harder to swallow than anything for an American opera audience. I’m sure there is an argument to be made that Adriana Mater is perhaps the first feminist opera as well, although I’ll leave that to others better equipped to do so. Suffice it to say this is something new. Or as a friend of mine said to me after the show, “I’m not sure this is really an opera.” That’s exactly right. And that’s exactly why it’s a great one.

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