Last week I had the fortunate opportunity to see both the dress rehearsal and the opening performance of the Cincinnati Opera's production of Ainadamar, a 90-minute opera written by Osvaldo Golijov with librettist David Henry Hwang (best known for his play M. Butterfly). (N.B. Did you know that the person who inspired the M. Butterfly character died earlier this month?)
Anyway, I digress. I have heard quite a bit about this opera for some time now. I read the Alex Ross review of its initial Tanglewood performance in the New Yorker. And I have heard a couple of friends of mine rave about the opera. So, out of curiosity, I did check out the recording from my local music library. I wanted to hear this opera, but probably more importantly, I wanted to hear a college friend of mine sing on the recording.
Okay, now that I have my biases out of the way (actually I don't, so I don't know if I could technically do a proper review of this particular performance), I will list what I liked and disliked about the Cincinnati Opera production.
1. Young composers should take note: if you meet a singer like Dawn Upshaw, befriend her and make her your muse. Seriously. How could you go wrong with an opera created around Dawn Upshaw? She is amazing, and she was certainly fantastic in her role as Margarita Xirgu. In fact, according to this NPR article, the opera was originally created for her and the female students and Tanglewood. The Lorca character was not supposed to exist in this opera, but then a funny thing happened (this is also from the NPR article):
But when Golijov came across mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor's audition tape and picture, inspiration struck. "She looks exactly like Lorca," Golijov recalls thinking. "I just grabbed the phone and I said, 'David, how 'bout if we have Lorca sung by a woman? She sounds [how] I think Lorca would have sounded, [and] she looks like him.' And David said 'Okay.'"
Gee, I don't know how I'd feel if someone said I looked exactly like Lorca. Is this a compliment? I dunno, but that is how Kelley landed her role as Federico García Lorca. She was also superb in this performance, but again, I'm biased, remember? In general, the performances were excellent.
2. The orchestra consisted of a chamber-sized ensemble, a bit of percussion, two flamenco guitarists, and a person triggering cues on a laptop was onstage accompanying the singers. (SPOILER ALERT: For those who are wondering how a laptop can accompany singers, there is a scene where gunshots were being fired, and the composer artfully used the percussive nature of gunshots to construct a pulsing rhythm from these sounds. The laptop triggers this sound clip.) Anyway, the orchestra, led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, played well, and I'm glad they were acknowledged for their work before the opera began. Unfortunately, they were onstage.
3. *Never put the orchestra onstage if you're having a "fully-staged" opera production. Ever.* Before the dress rehearsal performance, someone came onstage and explained that the reason why the orchestra was onstage was because the orchestra plays such an important part in this opera. Of course they do. The orchestra has a HUGE role in ALL operas. Okay. So the orchestra is onstage. During the performance I was trying to see how the orchestra was incorporated into the staging. And two-thirds into the opera, I realized I was robbed. All Cincinnatians were robbed, no matter what some of them say. So, I had a strategy when I attended the opening-night performance.
4. If you're going to see an opera production that has the orchestra onstage as part of its "staging," pretend you are at the Hollywood Bowl watching a concert version of the opera, and imagine that all the orchestra members are wearing white tuxedo jackets, you are enjoying a nice Los Angeles sunset, and you are happily sipping your wine while enjoying the fantastic weather. This kind of worked for me. Because, frankly I was a bit upset that I was robbed of a proper staging.
5. Lack of proper staging can potentially ruin the narrative in an opera (or any dramatic work for that matter). Personally, I liked the opera's narrative and story line. The opera is told with a prologue and three tableaux, which conveyed short images of Lorca's life. I believe this makes sense and works with a minimalist story like this one. A few of my friends completely disagree with me. They believed the story didn't make any sense and had no real drama or plot. Arguably, they are right; however, these tableaux were not meant to work together as a "traditional" opera story line. I believe what the composer and librettist were trying to do was create an opera that not only told the story of Lorca, but also reflect the work of Lorca. Lorca was an avant-garde Spanish writer, and one of the characteristics of his writing was utilizing images. In this poem I linked, there are four images, or tableaux. And I believe the opera tried to reflect that.
Did you know that Salvador Dalí created the scenic designs and costumes for Lorca's play Mariana Pineda? I would probably guess that this helped create the impressions or tableaux that Lorca was going for. And I truly believe that the Cincinnati Opera's lack of staging in this opera production aided in my friends's distaste for the structure of the opera.
6. This being said, I would love to see the original Peter Sellars production of the opera. I truly feel like I am missing a distinct production aspect to this opera, especially because I believe you absolutely cannot judge an opera solely by its music alone - everything must be considered. In general, the Cincinnati Opera production was good, but I give it a big thumbs down for its lack of staging.