At its finest, the reality portrayed in opera is a hyperreality. Plucking out the most dramatic, the funniest, the most extreme moments in life, opera pins these events to the velvet, expanding them, drawing them out, embellishing them, digging into their weird emotional heart until their most profound elements are so intense they'll make you dizzy. In this way, the best opera productions become less about momentous events than about the unruly emotions that boil up in reaction to those events. This, I suspect, is why people attend opera in the first place—for the shot of adrenaline you get from being exposed to this kind of emotional vertigo.
Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar, this season's contemporary production from the Santa Fe Opera, is a hip modern affair in most ways. Gronk designed its flamboyant graffiti-esque set. To the extent it contains a plot at all, Ainadamar is distinctly nonlinear. The orchestra is filled with nontraditional instruments—guitars, marimbas and various Spanish percussion instruments. Likewise, the opera's sound design includes several prerecorded elements. Finally, unlike the sprawling classics of 19th century opera, Ainadamar is a quick shot at 75 minutes—one act, no intermission, no chance to catch your breath.
Yet Golijov's brilliant creation feels traditional, nonetheless. Not a lot happens during those 75 minutes, but what does happen is examined with such dramatic musical intensity that by the time the curtain falls you'll feel as if entire lifetimes have passed before your eyes. (I mean this in a good way.)
Most of the opera consists of one long look at the execution of Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot to death by Fascist forces in 1936 during the first few days of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca was killed in his hometown of Granada in a place called Ainadamar, which means "the fountain of tears."
The main character in the opera, however, isn't Lorca but Margarita Xirgu, the great Spanish actress who collaborated with Lorca on many plays and did much to keep his memory alive following his execution. In Uruguay in 1969, at the end of her life, Xirgu looks back on the tragic events that took place more than 30 years earlier, when the dream of the Spanish Republic was crushed under the weight of Franco's superior military might. Lorca died during those years, but so did the dream of a free nation. When Xirgu died three decades later, the Fascists were still in power in Spain, a country to which she never dared return.
Golijov and his librettist, David Henry Hwang, spend a considerable amount of time tracing connections between Lorca and Mariana Pineda, a Spanish woman martyred in 1831 for sewing a revolutionary flag. Lorca's third play told her story, and Xirgu played the lead to great acclaim. The bond between these three figures—Lorca, his historical inspiration and his artistic collaborator—form the center of Golijov's opera.
This SFO creation is the first fully staged production of Ainadamar ever to be produced, and they do it up right. Director Peter Sellars has pulled it all together admirably. Gronk's towering 20-foot-high painting, which covers not only all three walls but also the entire floor, is a tumultuous piece of work that accurately reflects the trauma and chaos of a bloody civil war. Lights shining from the front of the stage frequently cast giant shadows against Gronk's painting, lending an appropriately eerie ambiance to the story line.
The Spanish-influenced orchestration is adventurous but entirely accessible. Golijov uses lone trumpets, Spanish guitars and rhythm instruments to capture the poetry of Lorca's life and work. The choreography, especially that involving a chorus of women in black dresses, is equally lyrical and ominous.
Of course, none of this would work without a great starring cast. The performance by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor as Lorca is near perfect. Dressed in a light suit, O'Connor combines masculine and feminine affectations into her character in a way that feels utterly seamless. Golijov has given both her and soprano Dawn Upshaw, who does an equally spectacular job in the role of Xirgu, a range of gorgeous melodies to sing. Given the brevity of this opera, it's surprising that the relationship between these two characters is developed so fully and convincingly. They both accomplish their parts with an impassioned erotic grace.
It's fitting that an opera about Lorca should be this poetic. Golijov and company have found a way to take one of the most tragic events in the history of 20th century art and politics, and transform it into a beautiful emblem of hope and freedom.