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Waxing Poetic

May 30, 2012

Peabody Southwell, Ani Maldjian, Suzan Hanson Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff Stertz
Roving reporter and man-about-town Ben Vanaman caught the final performance of Long Beach Opera's staging of Golijov's Ainadamar this weekend and filed this report.
The Long Beach Opera just concluded performances of its penultimate production of the current season, Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears), a lament “in three images” for the poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, a progressive who was assassinated by Spanish Fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. A scrappy company known for its productions of contemporary operas and works outside the general repertoire, often staged in offbeat Southern California locales, LBO had intended to perform Ainadamar at the old Long Beach Press Telegram building, but was forced to move the production to the oft-used Terrace Theater when that site became unavailable. Perhaps this accounted for a performance that, while often enjoyable, sometimes seemed a little scrappier and more under-rehearsed than usual for this enterprising company, which can work wonders on a budget (as in a memorable Nixon in China from 2010 and even a surprisingly strong Akhnaten from last year).

One entered the theater to find a raked stage covered in fabric, its focal point a lone raised chair in center stage from which the character of Lorca’s actress friend Margarita Xirgu waxes tragic about the great loss of this man to her student-acolyte Nuria. Golijov’s score, an insistent musical poem of hauntingly lyrical and sometimes jarringly clangorous effect, draws on elements of various colloquial musical styles that have influenced the composer and which are a trademark of his compositional technique. At times, for example, one can almost hear the peal of a muezzin’s call, evoking the Islamic history of Granada, where Lorca lived and died. In one of the most effective moments of this score, Lorca’s murder is punctuated by gunshot-like bursts that transition into flamenco rhythms. The orchestra, hidden behind a scrim at the back of the stage, delivered a compelling reading of the score from first note to last.

Dramatically, however, the production was somewhat inert. David Henry Hwang’s libretto, which is essentially a prolonged reminiscence imposes limitations on what is possible in terms of design, movement, action despite its powerful content. Here, the result was a mixed bag. While the paraphernalia of stagecraft –the chair; the sheet- made it look like the sets came from the Dollar Store, there were some notable effects: striking lighting cues –blistering and brilliant when Lorca is killed; shimmering and ethereal when Xirgu breathes her last at the end- and an elevator that lifted the eight-woman “Greek chorus” from beneath the stage to comment on the sorrow of it all. When Lorca dies, slain alongside a bullfighter and a teacher, three dancers magically appear behind the fallen martyrs, pulled aloft in a striking coup de theater. However, one questions the wisdom of sending Xirgu down the hole at the end, sinking into the abyss rather than rising to join her beloved friend and comrade.

The vocal standouts of the evening were the tormented Lorca of Peabody Southwell and Ani Maldjian’s authoritatively-sung Nuria. Susan Hanson in the role of Margarita Xirgu was commanding in the middle of her range but a bit raggedy at the top, problematically resulting in protégé Nuria coming across as a more bold personality than her mentor. Golijov’s inspiration in making Lorca a “trouser role” has been noted. It certainly provides subtext to the story’s sexual politics, which is more glancingly marked by Hwang –and director Andreas Mitisek- in only one moment where presumed homosexual Lorca is seen flirting with a possible male lover. But the work carries power, from the beginning, where Xirgu prepares to reassume the lead of Lorca’s play “Mariana Pineda” in the final moments of her life, to the poignant conclusion, where Xirgu’s dying memories of Lorca are left in the hands of Nuria. Verbal history is the ranconteur’s trade, and Hwang beautifully draws on this tradition to craft a necessarily outsized portrait of one of the 20th Century’s greatest writers. But the company may have done itself an unwitting disservice by asking Gregorio Luke to read, in vivid and impassioned Spanish, three of Lorca’s greatest poems in a pre-concert talk. This reading took one’s breath away, setting one’s expectations almost too high for what the company could deliver. But that the evening was so generally satisfying overall speaks well of Long Beach Opera and its mission.


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