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LONG BEACH, CA
Long Beach Opera
The world premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar ("Fountain of tears"), at Tanglewood, in August 2003, was much anticipated, but the opera was met with muted praise at its first performance. The work went through extensive retooling before it received a new staging by Peter Sellars at Santa Fe Opera in 2005, when it achieved its present, almost uniformly lauded state. The bestselling, Grammy-winning 2006 recording (DG) with Dawn Upshaw helped spread the reputation of the opera considerably; today Golijov's taut, lush work is widely viewed as one of his bellwether achievements and one of this generation's more significant contributions to the art form.
The Long Beach Opera production heard at the Terrace Theater in May — directed and designed by Andreas Mitisek and conducted by Steven Osgood — was an aesthetic and musical success, offering a strong artistic vision and sound execution throughout. More to the point, it illustrated in stark relief the clearly defined role LBO plays in the Southern California cultural landscape. The other options for Southern California operagoers this past month were La Bohème at Los Angeles Opera, La Bohème at Pacific Symphony and Don Giovanni with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It's tempting to wish a bigger operating budget on Long Beach Opera — at least a permanent home — but not at the cost of its iconoclastic spirit.
David Henry Hwang's libretto for Ainadamar is a nightmarish meditation on the death of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca at the hands of Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the eyes of his frequent artistic collaborator, Margarita Xirgu.
The work's uncanny rhythmic vitality and melodic elegance put Golijov's strengths on full display. Drawing from Latin, Arab, Jewish and European influences, the score blends traditional structural elements with contemporary invention. The comforting familiarity of arias–chorus–dance episode is counteracted by, say, prerecorded gunshots that take the role of percussion instruments. Graceful vocal lines and brutal percussive chaos — it works.
Long Beach Opera's Ainadamar cast was dotted with company stalwarts. Suzan Hanson (Xirgu), Peabody Southwell (Lorca) and Ani Maldjian (Xirgu's student, Nuria), all veterans of numerous LBO productions, acquitted themselves brilliantly. Hanson's pillowy, burnished tone gave the character a warm, sympathetic core. Mezzo Southwell, looking like Lorca's doppelganger, was full of swagger and despair, displaying a rock-solid lower range, clean and controlled tone and a wide expressive range. Maldjian served as a powerhouse, displaying an intensely focused voice that pierced through the chaos without straining itself. The three joined forces at the close, giving the transcendently beautiful trio its full measure. The support roles and chorus provided a strong backbone.
Osgood managed the orchestral forces with discipline and confidence. The constant rhythmic and dynamic shifts offered plenty of opportunity for missteps, all deftly avoided. Adam Del Monte and Kenton Youngstrom were the passionate and precise guitarists.
Smart direction and production design by Mitisek, the company's man-of-all-trades, offered one startling tableau after another. Having Lorca crowd-surf on a sea of dead partisans was brilliant, if grotesque. Mitisek was aided by the hypnotizing video design of Frieder Weiss, who worked to similar good effect on the company's recent staggeringly effective production of Philip Glass's Akhnaten. I don't expect the company to develop a consistent aesthetic — presenting opera in a parking lot or at a swimming pool doesn't lend itself to consistency — but for the mainstage productions, Weiss provides cost-effective spectacle that serves the company well.
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