Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ainadamar in Chicago

When an artist of the magnitude and quality of Dawn Upshaw puts her heart and soul into a work by a little-known composer, you have to take notice. The very American soprano has been making a specialty of Osvaldo Golijov, and getting his work performed pretty extensively in major venues. To great applause – Ainadamar got a standing ovation on Feb 12th at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, where a pretty sizeable house witnessed a truly memorable performance.

From the very entrance of a distraught Ms Upshaw, the audience was pulled into the emotional heart of the story of a great artist’s murder by Falangists in 1939. The libretto by David Henry Hwang focused on the murder of Lorca as the central event of the piece – is it an opera? A passion? I think it is a new hybrid concert form where the drama is as important as the music.

The lighting, the sound effects, the mikes on the singers, the supertitles, everything was centered on the staged drama of an inexorable tragic loss. The reiterated gunfire (becoming percussion effects) was a jolting climax, but the piece sort of petered out in a too prolonged ending. Still, the performances were never less than compelling. I could wish all music or theater were as deeply felt as this one was.

Dawn Upshaw was always magnificent, with a new layer of chest tones that really extend her range of expression. Jessica Rivera was every bit as marvelous vocally (I was already converted when I saw her as Kitty Oppenheimer in Dr Atomic). And the magnetic Kelley O’Connor brought a flexible mezzo to the trouser role of Lorca. The three artists had wonderful dramatic and vocal rapport, and their trios were quite ravishing.

I think the music also represents an exciting new hybridity quite different from the artificial insertion of “exotic” elements into basically western contexts that is the older way. Here the foreign is domestic, and both are fully integrated into a coherent whole.

Interestingly, I was prepared to dislike this piece. Just hearing the CD as I did, without knowing anything about the narrative, was disorienting to me, and I dismissed the score as pointlessly eclectic. I missed the point. Another lesson in drawing conclusions too easily!

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