Out of failure, a new victory

Times Staff Writer

Death, like all those tourists packing every corner of Santa Fe in its high season, happily takes a holiday under the blazing sun of this glorious desert.

Death has pervaded the stage of Santa Fe Opera, where Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar,” a sad opera about the fascist murder of the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War, has just gotten sadder. And more violent. And more rhapsodic. And more relevant. In it, death is now encapsulated. In that encapsulation comes the promise of rebirth. And in the rebirth, a failed opera, reconceived and rewritten, was reborn here as well Saturday night.

“Ainadamar” had a much heralded premiere two years ago in a student production by the Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. It was heralded because it was the first opera by Golijov, whose Latin dance-infused “St. Mark” Passion had made him the hottest young composer in America.


But it was opera made in haste, and it was a mess. After losing his way with another tragic subject, Golijov dropped plans for a Holocaust opera and persuaded playwright David Henry Hwang to fashion a libretto on Lorca just months before the premiere. Hwang viewed Lorca’s death through the eyes of Margarita Xirgu, a famed Catalan actress who starred in Lorca’s first stage success, “Mariana Pineda.” In the opera, which takes place in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1969, Xirgu, now an aging actress, dies onstage while once more reprising her Mariana Pineda. In her last moments she imagines Lorca’s arrest in Granada in 1936 and his being led to Ainadamar, the “fountain of tears,” where he was shot along with a teacher and a bullfighter.

In this original version, some things worked; many did not. Hwang fashioned banal theatrical devices, such as having the younger and older Margarita interact. Golijov was stuck with a principally female cast left over from his original Holocaust idea, so Lorca became a trouser role sung by a woman. Intended for students, with Dawn Upshaw singing the role of Margarita, “Ainadamar” was further hampered by an amateurish production, which only made the students look foolish.

But there were also compelling musical moments in “Ainadamar,” so compelling that audiences and critics alike bent over backward to give this uneven opera the benefit of the doubt. Golijov’s promise as an opera composer was too strong to be discouraged. A New York performance was canceled when Upshaw took ill. Several months later, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group remounted “Ainadamar,” with minor musical changes and some toning down of the production. That might have been the end of the opera had Peter Sellars not been in the audience.

Sellars, who has staged the new Santa Fe production, oversaw a complete rewrite of libretto and score. Although the new version of the opera is, at 77 minutes, only a few minutes longer than the original, about half of it is new and much of the other half is reworked. Tanglewood now stands as a rough draft.

In the process, “Ainadamar” has become a real Sellars opera, a distilled statement of his spiritual and social concerns and one of his most personal productions. He has expanded the scope, enriching the context of the Spanish Civil War and also the significance of Xirgu, who fled Franco’s Spain and devoted her life to preserving pre-fascistic Spanish theater in South America.

He also has created a theater of delirium. He has staged the opera as a representation of the spirit leaving the body. It is an opera of unfinished business, on the passing on of the knowledge and experience of one generation to the next. The young Margarita is now a student. A great poet died with a teacher as a repressive government set itself up in the business of restricting knowledge, freedom of expression and education. Margarita becomes the symbol that ideas cannot be killed.


“Ainadamar” is a short opera, but not as short as it might appear. It properly begins an hour before curtain. Sellars invited Gronk, the Los Angeles artist, to paint a huge mural as the stage set -- one that includes the back, sides and even the floors. It is lighted for the hour in which the audience arrives, by lighting designer James Ingalls, as if for a museum, and by a more spectacular wattage -- the setting desert sun behind the open-air theater. All over this massive “Guernica”-like mural are body parts and seed, complexly intertwined to create a surreal forest of terror and of promise.

One also needs time before “Ainadamar” to learn from the program what the performance, no longer narrative, does not tell you. Sellars’ staging has taken on ritualistic character. A chorus of wailing women wave arms (not terribly well), expressing the tolling of bells and the pain of mourning. Upshaw, sounding splendid, takes us through the excruciating yet liberating end of life. Her final moments are spent lying on the floor twitching, while a haunting interlude for two Arab guitars and orchestra floats through the theater. During the performance a strong breeze of sensuously soft, warm air entered with the guitars, and the effect was shattering and comforting at the same time.

Lorca, in an outrageous powder blue suit, comes through the opera as if in a dream. His death is a nightmare. The shooting of Lorca, the teacher and the bullfighter is replayed over and over again against an electronic fugue of gunshots. Kelley O’Connor, who sang Lorca as one of the student performers in Tanglewood, sang Lorca again. She is now an apprentice singer at Santa Fe Opera, but this performance gives notice that her apprenticeship is over. Her dark, low mezzo-soprano and expressive stage presence are those of a riveting singer emerged, not emerging. Jessica Rivera, another apprentice, sang Nuria with a gorgeous high soprano.

Golijov’s score is now whole and amazing, in its opening distant trumpet calls, its insinuating dance rhythms, its vital command of percussion and its arrestingly beautiful arias for women’s voice. The end is a devastatingly lush trio, with the voices of Lorca and Margarita from beyond guiding the way for Nuria.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who also conducted “Ainadamar” in Los Angeles, led what may be the finest moment of his young career in a performance of ideally flowing lines. He will not, unfortunately, be the one who makes the recording of the opera. That will be Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony, which will perform “Ainadamar” in concert at next summer’s Ojai Festival.

Santa Fe Opera does not do everything right. The gossip around town is about the interior decorator with musical connections (he did violinist Joshua Bell’s apartment) who got to direct this summer’s critically panned opening production of “Turandot.” But in “Ainadamar,” the company recognized the greatness inherent in a failed opera and did something about it.


And it has done so proudly. “Ainadamar” is sung in Spanish and gives in its seat titles your choice of English or Spanish. The company, moreover, spent the weekend producing a variety of relevant events that included a reading of “Mariana Pineda,” starring the Broadway and television actress Linda Purl, and a free panel with the opera’s creators that filled an 800-seat auditorium.