Welsh National Opera – Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar – with Jacquelina Livieri, Hanna Hipp & Julieth Lozan Rolong; directed by Deborah Colker; conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren

Golijov
Ainadamar – Opera in one Act to a libretto by David Henry Hwang [sung in a Spanish translation by the composer, with English and Welsh surtitles]

Margarita Xirgu – Jacquelina Livieri
Federico García Lorca – Hanna Hipp
Nuria – Julieth Lozano Rolong
Ruiz Alonso – Alfredo Tejada
José Tripaldi – Jasey hall
Torero – Gareth Dafydd Morris
Maestro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Niña 1 – Annie Reilly
Niña 2 – Beca Davies 

Welsh National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Matthew Kofi Waldren

Deborah Colker – Director
Jon Bausor – Designer
Paul Keogan – Lighting Designer
Tal Rosner – Projection Designer
Cameron Crosby – Sound Designer
Antonio Najarro – Flamenco Choreographer


Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 17 August, 2023
Venue: Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Osvaldo Golijov’s work Ainadamar (2003) is essentially an elegy in dramatised form, to the memory of Federico García Lorca, rather than a straightforward biographical narrative about the Spanish writer assassinated in 1936 at the outset of the Civil War. He’s not much represented as a character in the series of flashbacks and memories that make up the drama, but is largely voiced or memorialised through the figure of his muse Margarita Xirgu, who played the principal role in his play Mariana Pineda, a historical figure executed in 1831 for her part in a conspiracy against the absolutist monarch Ferdinand VII, just as Lorca was to meet a violent end for his opposition to increasing tyranny. Life is refracted through Lorca’s art then, just as that art was refracted through his own life and death, which is now disseminated in turn through this opera. 

On the few occasions that Lorca appears in his own right, it is more as a tutelary presence, hovering intensely within Margarita’s reminiscences. Intriguingly cast as a trouser role in the original score, Hanna Hipp imparts a richly ethereal, seamless vocalism to her performance which aptly embodies both the writer’s ghostly and (what is effectively) androgynous presence here. Blending both sexes in the one character helps to remove Lorca from the worldly and historical realm, leaving those genders to be projected separately within the drama itself – through the female figures of Margarita and Nuria, the pupil to whom she passes on her memories; and in male form through the visual choreographic poetry of Jesus Olmedo’s flamenco dancing, evoking another aspect of the Spanish-ness for which Lorca fought, as well as his homosexuality when Olmedo performs in tandem with another male dancer. Jacquelina Livieri gives an energetic performance as Margarita, exuding a vocally dark passion and woody timbre in the style of flamenco, but without resorting to caricature. Julieth Lozano Rolong’s more wiry sonority conveys a tense Nuria as she takes on, with some trepidation, the legacy of Lorca from Margarita.

Those complicated layers of biography and personality are kept simple in the setting of Deborah Colker’s production, which is centred simply on a large suspended ring of tassels. With images of a flaming bull at first, it is like a bull ring, in which Lorca is taunted and threatened – just as he threw down the challenge to his rivals in his folksong ‘El café de Chinitas’ – “Soy más valiente que tú más torero y más gitano” (“I am braver than you, more bullfighter and more gypsy”). But it later stands in for the fountain of tears that is the translation of the opera’s Arabic title, referring to the spring near Granada where Lorca was killed – denoted by the rippling patterns which Margarita plays on it, and by the droplet light projections cast upon them. 

Some Christian imagery is employed, though perhaps toned down compared with what at least one critique suggested was more of an imposed crucifixion scene in the first UK performance of the work last year at Glasgow. Nevertheless, used sparingly and almost elusively, it is potent and apt: Jasey Hall’s arrestingly sonorous Falangist guard José Tripaldi ironically stands as though nailed to the cross as he offers to take Lorca’s confession before he is executed; various jagged pieces of furniture are piled up earlier on in a circle, perhaps to resemble a crown of thorns; and as Margarita plays the shot Mariana in the play, she is held compassionately by Lorca, like a reversal of the Pietà. (Sensationalism is avoided by not depicting Lorca’s death as such – an anonymous group of prisoners are shot instead, but they come to life again in a balletic enactment of resurrection, alluding to another Christian theme, accompanied by gunfire which merges into the frenetic rhythm of castanets in the score, harking back tellingly to the same percussive background to the WNO Chorus’s gracefully delivered chorus of gypsies in the opera’s first scene.)

The references seem to accumulate sufficiently so as to reclaim a gentler, more poetically mythical vision of Christianity as a quintessential part of a more humanistic Spanish heritage that Lorca wished to preserve, wrested from the fascists’ defensively chauvinist and obsessive promulgation of Roman Catholicism. Something of the same tactic appears to be going on with the assimilation of Arabic culture – as the traditional enemy of crusading Catholicism in the Iberian peninsula historically – in the opera’s title and also by having the Falangist officer Ruiz Alonso sing his aggressive threats and incitements to violence in the style of a muezzin’s call (with resounding edginess here by Alfredo Tejada), as though to neutralise the fascists’ overbearing, tyrannous power with this invocation of the cultural diversity of Andalusian Spain.

Matthew Kofi Waldren sustains notable urgency through the performance with the WNO Orchestra, driven especially by the battery of percussion to create a pervasive ominous effect, and those performers rightly came on stage with the conductor to receive the audience’s applause. The score itself doesn’t particularly pioneer any new perspective upon the expression of Spain’s musical traditions, but it does efficiently draw upon the various styles and forms already mentioned within a continuous propulsive sonic mood that is somewhat like a soundtrack more than a musical setting of the text. It makes extensive use of the typical downward, fateful-sounding harmony of Spanish music (identified in music theory with the Phrygian mode) to become almost something of a leitmotif.

If the incidents within the drama and stagecraft are sometimes obscure and cryptic, an undeniable mood and poetry sweep through the work, even if it would perhaps have been welcome if more of Lorca’s writing itself were organically interwoven in it, rather than simply quoted in a gallimaufry towards the end. The opera’s brevity would also make it a suitable companion piece in a double bill, perhaps with de Falla’s La vide breve seeing that Lorca worked with that composer.

Further performances to 22 November at various locations

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