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Preview: Dramatic Spanish opera for next year's festival

Ainadamar
Osvaldo Golijov and David Henry Hwang
Directed by Sara Brodie
New Zealand Festival
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
March 2

Among the special events at the New Zealand Festival in March next year will be the sole performance of the contemporary opera Ainadamar, one of the 21st century’s major operas.

It is the first opera by Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov and has a Spanish libretto written by American playwright David Henry Hwang.

Ainadamar is Arabic for the fountain of youth and is subtitled "an Opera in Three Images."

The opera tells the story of the Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca and his lover, actress Margarita Xirguis, with the tale being recounted through a series of flashbacks.

It involves Lorca's opposition to the Falangists, accusations of homosexuality and his subsequent murder.

The semi-staged opera will feature an international cast alongside the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus and some of New Zealand's finest singers and soloists.

The multi-media artist, Tim Gruchy, is providing a visual backdrop for the work, having created the visuals for the 2008 Adelaide festival production of the work.

Ainadamar stars Grammy award-winning soloists Kelley O'Connor as Lorca, Jessica Rivera as Xirgu and Jesus Montoya as Ruiz Alonso, along with Leanne Keneally and James Clayton.

Miguel Harth-Bedoya returns to New Zealand to conduct the production, which will be directed by Sara Brodie.

Ainadamar’s Yiddish and Spanish flavours are immediately arresting; flamenco rubbing shoulders with Afro-Cuban grooves.

Ainadamar is the name of an ancient well near Granada where Lorca was allegedly killed by Fascist forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

The tale begins in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1969 where Lorca’s story is told in flashbacks by Margarita Xirgu. Xirgu, who was close to Lorca and the co-author of several of his plays, is haunted by regret that she was unable to save him.

The work has features of both an opera and the passion play, as it examines the powerful symbolic role Lorca has embodied after his death for other artists as a martyr in the name of freedom of artistic expression.

The strong connections with the Baroque passion musical concept also occur structurally, as the work evolves with a series of arias, recurring choruses and dance genres.

The symbolic aspect was emphasised visually by the director Peter Sellars in his staging for Santa Fe Opera. Sellars has been a major influence on contemporary opera with his productions of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

The role of Lorca is sung by a woman, exploring the convergence between the traditional use of the countertenor and the contemporary use of the female to sing male parts, as in the trio of female singers who take on the part of Frank in Ben Frost’s 2013 opera version of The Wasp Factory.

While the opera premiered in 2003, it was the 2005 production reworked and directed by Peter Sellars that saw it hailed as a breakthrough.

The New York Times said of this production, “Mr. Golijov unabashedly embraces emotion, melody and richly tonal harmonic writing. He skilfully finds common ground in disparate folk music traditions, especially Latin American and Jewish. The voices and instruments are filtered through subtle electronic resources.

"Taped elements run through the score, like the arresting opening segment that terrifyingly merges the sounds of gurgling waters and galloping horses. There is also a stunning climatic episode when Mr. Golijov turns the repeated sounds of rifle shots as García Lorca and two compatriots are executed into a pummeling rhythmic fugue.“

Golijov, who is regarded as one of the major composers bringing the classical music tradition into the 21st century, has worked with film directors Francis Ford Coppola and Anthony Minghella, and is known for his eclectic combinations - sometimes modern, sometimes traditional - to realise his exceptional visions.

The NZ Festival’s artistic director, Shelagh Magadza, says Ainadamar’s composer, subject and cast will prove a formidable combination: “The festival is delighted to bring you Ainadamar; García Lorca has of course been a symbol of artistic freedom for many decades; this is his story in the hands of one of the world’s most important contemporary composers, realised by star international soloists and performers."

More by John Daly-Peoples