Cincinnati Opera’s 89th season has been dubbed “The Spanish Season.” Artistic Director Evans Mirageas and his gifted staff had good reason. Each of the four operas took place in Spain. The first three were not only trip to sunny climes but excursions into opera lovers’ heaven. I am more than certain that the season’s finale, Carmen, will be another triumph.
I have no argument with Evans’ creative genius. I only call to attention that The Marriage of Figaro was written by a German speaking Austrian, Mozart, who used an Italian libretto. He was inspired by a trilogy of plays, written in French by Beaumarchais.
Verdi, Italy’s opera giant, wrote Don Carlo in both Italian and French. Frenchman Bizet penned Carmen in his native French based loosely on a French novel by Mérimée.
Again, I have no quarrel with our marvelous trips to Spain. I only highlight that this week’s opera, Ainadamar, is Spanish to its very roots. Composed by native Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov on a libretto written in English by David Henry Hwang then translated into Spanish by Golijov. The internationalism does not stop there. Golijov stemmed from Romanian and Russian-Jewish grandparents. He had the synthesis of the old world and the rich tangos of Argentina mixed with gypsy melodies in his head as he composed the compelling musical fabric of Ainadamar.
The opera celebrates the life of Spain’s greatest poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. Lorca died by ruthless Fascist execution in the Spanish Civil War. His poetry has lived on with its marvelous rhythms and images even in translation. Dead at age 38, Lorca contributed works which are still being produced such as Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba. His second play, Mariana Pineda forms the central theme of Ainadamar.
The complexities of the Spanish Civil War have been romanticized by the greatest authors such as Ernest Hemingway. Thrusting Fascism onto the world scene, it led circuitously to World War II. The opera vividly creates that time, Lorca’s life and tragic death and his effect on generations of others.
The opera’s plot seems to be as complex as the war. On stage, everything becomes crystal clear when led by the music and the interpenetrating scenes. In three scenes which flow continuously, the story is unfolded through the interactions of the three major characters. Ainadamar is close to being an all women’s opera.
Lorca is sung by Kelley O’Connor for whom the ‘pants’ role was written. She is a mezzo-soprano with an amazing range. She sings with a marvelous harmonic sound which makes every note vibrate with meaning. As Nuria, perhaps the only fictional character, Jessica Rivera uses her soaring soprano to accentuate the beauty of Golijov’s music.
Margarita Xirgu was a close friend of Lorca in Spain. It was for her, the leading actress of the time, that Lorca wrote the play Mariana Pineda. The persona of Margarita provides the agon of the opera. Her devotion to Lorca continues after his death. For 42 years, she toured the world in that role. In 1936, she tried to persuade Lorca to come with her to the Americas. He refused to leave Spain and the essence of the revolution against Fascism to which he was so dedicated. This sealed his doom.
The role of Margarita requires a virtuoso singer and an actress in command of deep emotional feelings. Soprano Dawn Upshaw is at the zenith of her brilliant career. Singing the world over, 300 appearances at the Met and every other major opera house, she handles the standard repertory very well. What has distinguished Ms. Upshaw is her championing of new music. Her list of credits is remarkable. Her stature has won her many awards including the MacArthur “genius” Fellowship.
As Margarita, Upshaw’s performance reaches into the stratosphere of vocal and emotional expression. Always in command of the power of her voice, she adds nuances which are not ornamentation but central to her art.
The composer chose these three incredible women to premiere Ainadamar in 2005. Evans Mirageas’ devotion to perfect casting reassembled these artists for their triumphant Cincinnati Opera debuts.
The cast is completed by an ensemble of eight women who serve as chorus as well as create a special Spanish flavor. They are given marvelous music to sing and perform it flawlessly. The only men with any real singing roles are Jesus Montoya as the voice of the Fascists and Cincinnati and Dayton favorite David Michael as the presiding officer at Lorca’s execution.
Billed as a “Flamenco singer,” Montoya delivers his indictment of Lorca and other liberal sympathizers in the voice of a Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from atop his mosque minaret. This amalgam of Spanish, Flamenco, Muslim, European and Jewish sources has created, under Golijov’s pen, a rare fabric of musical beauty. The music is lyrical. The tragic tone of the opera never becomes morbid or morose. I don’t believe that these are tunes to whistle but the overall effect is compelling.
Other innovations abound. The orchestra is not in the pit but on the stage. This is unique to Cincinnati Opera. The musicians could be called a “large band” as many non-traditional instruments - guitar, jazz drum set and prerecorded sound tracks - are used with riveting effect. The action is on the stage apron and on a raised platform behind the orchestra.
While the scope of the opera is large, the actual effects are reduced to essentials. The audience is compelled to participate in each gradation of emotion. If I were asked to describe the music, I would find it akin to one of the reductions of a Mahler symphony by Schönberg and others. It is a world in itself, concentrated to its essentials. Each voice is delivered with the highest art and most engaging clarity. It is a lesson in music, a lesson in life and a lesson in what continues to be a privilege - attending Cincinnati Opera.
The next such privilege is Carmen, July 22, 24, 26. Enough said! Don’t miss it.