Monday, February 18, 2013

Ainadamar revisited

OSVALDO GOLIJOV'S OPERA AINADAMAR, a public rehearsal of which I wrote about here last week, turns out, on seeing it staged yesterday at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center, to be a study in temporizing; and it's tempting to temporize in discussing it further. As I wrote last week, the score is full of beauty, and hearing the composer's often striking orchestration added a huge dimension to the already often compelling sounds of the rehearsal piano.

The vocal writing is effective, idiomatic, gratifying; and I was particularly struck by Golijov's investigation of tessitura: he explores every available area of his performers' pitch ranges, for musical, expessive, and dramatic purpose, and in virtually every case these performers responded willingly and — again; sorry to turn so often to the word — beautifully.

Garcia Lorca in 1914
The dramatic premise of the opera is interesting and relevant, hinging on the 1936 execution of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca by Nationalist forces shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca was a Surrealist poet, gay, and an outspoken supporter of the Popular Front, as well as the brother-in-law of the leftist mayor of Granada: any of these might have put him on the wrong side of the Nationalist firing squad. His body has never been found, and details of the execution are uncertain; the event has attained mythic proportion.

This makes it a perfect subject for opera, of course; and Golijov — and his librettist, David Henry Hwang — take myth further by framing it within two time perspectives. The first of its three "images" introduces the actress Margarita Xirgu, who premiered the title role in Lorca's early (1925) play Mariana Pineda, an early 19th-century Andalucian heroine executed for refusing to betray rebels against tyrannical forces in Granada.

In this first scene Margarita, in the last month of her long life (April 1969), reflects on her relationship with Garcia Lorca, their meeting in a Madrid bar, and the content of the play Mariana Pineda, which clearly foreshadowed the curve of Lorca's own life. Composer and librettist frame this scene further, casting it as a duet for Margarita (soprano, written for Dawn Upshaw, compellingly taken yesterday by Marnie Breckenridge) and her favored student Nuria (high soprano, well sung by Maya Kherani).

Marnie Breckenridge and Lisa Chavez by Steve DiBartolomeo.jpg
Marnie Breckenridge as Margarita Xirgu; Lisa Chavez as Lorca
photo: Steve DiBartolomeo
The second scene or "image" in this one-act opera introduces Lorca himself, cast as a trouser-role for mezzosoprano and memorably performed yesterday by Lisa Chavez — effectively costumed and made up, by the way, as comparison of the two photos here indicates*. In this scene Margarita, whose theater company is about to leave for a tour to Cuba, tries unsuccessfuly to persuade Lorca to come with her. He refuses, is arrested, arraigned with two other prisoners (a fearful teacher, a rebellious bullfighter), and led offstage for the execution.

The third scene returns to Margarita, dying, unable to go onstage in her role of Mariana Pineda, passing on her example, her charge, to her student Nuria.

Such is the dramatic structure of the opera, which is in fact more a scenic cantata. Opera Parallèle did what it could to bring visual interest to the work. Each scene was introduced with Flamenco-inflected dance performed by five women led by La Tania. Like them, the large chorus of girls and women represented The People, and were effectively directed by Brian Staufenbiel, who also found dramatic ways of negotiating the arrest and arraignment. Christine Crook's costumes were outstanding, I thought, and Jeanna Parham's wigs and makeup, as already noted, contributed to the veracity of the production.

But the libretto and the score resist the stage. Golijov's music, however beautiful and resourceful in its detail, depends too much on drones and drumming, too little on development or variation. The most successful moments are the public ones — Flamenco tenor Jesus Montoya's keening as the arresting officer Ramón Ruiz Alonso; bass John Bischoff's sympathetic portrayal of the officer-priest sent to confess the prisoners; above all, Lisa Chavez's expostulations as the fiercely patriotic Lorca.

The less successful moments were the private ones — to the cost of the excellent Marnie Breckenridge. Her character is given essentially a series of laments, at the end even recalling Purcell's Dido; and laments can only go on so long, and so often, before they begin to exhaust an audience's attentiveness.

Staufenbiehl tried to offset this problem with visual and aural imagery: prerecorded sounds of hoofbeats and dripping water refer to images in Lorca's poems, to Spanish machismo, to the "Fountain of Tears" where Lorca is said to have been shot, and whose name, curiously in Arabic translation, is the title of the opera. (Arabic influences the score, too, in its drumming patterns and the sinous near-pitch vocalization against drones.)

Matthew Antaky was the scenic and lighting designer: he provided a double stage, one above the other, to clarify the distinction of the public and the private moments I've alluded to; and to nestle within a larger frame, the entire proscenium, on which projections by the video artist Austin Forbord attempted a contextualization: film imagery from the Spanish Civil War; repeated sightings of the statue of Mariana Pineda which stands in Granada, and by which Lorca claims, in this opera, to have been obsessed and inspired in his childhood, foretelling the events of his life and times.

I'm afraid the result of all this, in spite of brilliant performances by the singers and by the conductor Nicole Paiement, is to suggest the difficulty, impossibility even, of turning a complex, detailed, extensive, essentially public subject into an effective evening in the theater. The theater has been the place for public contemplation of epochal moments since ancient Greek tragedy, of course, and the responsibility of theater to public understanding of public events has continued down through Shakespeare, the realist theater of Ibsen, and the provocative social-awareness theater of Lorca. It has been a major thread in the history of opera from Verdi (and before him Auber!) to John Adams.

But the last three operas I've seen — Einstein on the Beach, The Nose, and now Ainadamar — have revealed the very present problem of bringing intellectual complexity and scope to theatrically persuasive production. Einstein works, because the production that's been touring has had a chance to be perfected in its integration of sound, scene, lighting, music, and performance. Shostakovich's Nose foundered, in my view, for its director's shrinking from the opera's essential anger and bitterness. And this Ainadamar, while earnest, well-intentioned, and beautifully performed, didn't quite overcome the difficulties inherent in its author's approach to their subject.
I saw Ainadamar from a very nice seat on the aisle, provided by Opera Parallèle's publicity office. I'm told the Federal Trade Commission requires us bloggers to reveal this sort of "gift," in theory in order to reveal possible sources of conflict of interest.

The issue of free tickets for reviewers is an interesting one. In my years as a music and art critic for the Oakland Tribune I never paid for a ticket, and rarely did the newspaper either. While it's true that a few journals, with deep pockets, have made it a point to pay for their writers' tickets, critical discussion being considered a necessity by the organizations that put on public performances, they have traditionally provided free admission to writers.

So too do publishers send free copies of books to reviewers, and other institutions, film companies for example, offer travel and entertainment. My first trip to Europe was paid for by a consortium of an airline, a national travel office, and a foreign governmental group. Soon after that trip, in 1973, the Tribune adopted a policy of refusing such junkets.

I don't want to resume the career of critic. For one thing, no one's going to pay me to write criticism; for another, I don't like the responsibility it entails. I will therefore rarely accept free tickets to events in the future, as I have rarely until now. This presents a personal problem, of course, because these events are expensive. I bought my tickets to Einstein on the Beach, three times in the last twelve months; and to Nose, as I buy the books I occasionally write about here, and the meals I describe over at Eating Every Day.

Lewis Hyde wrote an important bookThe Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World — in which he discusses, as Google Books puts it, "the argument that a work of art is essentially a gift and not a commodity." I can't whole-heartedly recommend the book; I find its second half, a discussion of Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman, both tedious and somehow distasteful. But the first half is brilliant.

Hyde outlines three types of economy: the profit-based economy we all live within, in which some value is subtracted from any commodity and kept as profit by everyone trading it; the barter-based economy in which commodities are exchanged in a zero-sum system; and a gift-based economy in which value is actually added to any commodity as it is handed on by one person or organization to another.

Where has there ever been a gift-based economy? Well, among certain "primitive" societies, Hyde points out, like that of native Americans in the northwest, until the custom led to their exploitation by newly arrived Europeans. But also among scientists, whose journal articles grow in value as they are published, reviewed, and re-framed.

And among the artistic community, which freely takes existing work, changes it, adds to it, and selflessly hands it on. This I think is what true criticism does too, and nowhere more than on the Internet, where most of us do considerable work for no compensation whatsoever. Of course our work may not deserve compensation: but do not suspect us of corruption. My seat on the aisle, and the one next to it for my patient companion; even the home-made cookies sweetly offered with my press packet, have not corrupted me. Not yet.

*Also indicated: the influence of Wikipedia, whose article on Garcia Lorca is the source of the historical photo; and whose articles on other subjects linked in the above comments inform both this and other reviews of Ainadamar. A contemplation of the ubiquity of Wikipedia references, and their influence on journalism, would be worth exploring.


Civic Center said...

The Wikipedia page for Garcia Lorca is unusually good, and fills in all kinds of holes that the opera libretto left gaping. And those cookies from Karen Ames, the local freelance publicist beyond compare, are deeply corrupting so it's good you're going to stop taking free tickets.

Your discussion of the ethics of reviewing and blogging and gift economies vs. barter vs. profit is fascinating. I'm not a reviewer and don't want to be one, but do enjoy getting the word out about artistic and musical events that are worthwhile. However, I'm poor enough that it would be difficult to cover the cost all on my own. Anyway, I try to limit my ticket requests to events I think I am going to appreciate. Sometimes that doesn't work out and I'll apologize to the organization afterwards, and tell them that since I don't have anything nice to say, it's probably better not to say anything at all. But it's an ethical mudpit, a familiar place in journalism's long history.

Charles Shere said...

You raise here another ethical problem facing critics and especially reviewers: what to say, if anything, when you feel you have nothing good to say. I've never like writing really negative reviews. If I think the public is being bilked, then I might have something to say about that, but if it's simply a matter of an event or a book not being very good — whatever that might mean, not to raise yet another question — then I prefer to simply let the thing slide into whatever oblivion may await.

It probably boils down to The Terrible Problem of Taste. Taste, being personal, has no place at all in a published review: but of course it is completely unavoidable, and any published review that lacks statements of taste — express or implied — is likely to be no more than a description of physical fact. It was x minutes long; y decibels loud, z ounces in weight. Not terribly enlightening.