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The Blood of a Poet

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/07/2008 -  
Osvaldo Golijov: Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears)
Concert performance. Libretto by David Henry Hwang

Dawn Upshaw (Margarita Xirgu), Kelley O’Connor (Federico Garcia Lorca), Emily Albrink (Nuria), Jesús Montoya (Ruiz Alonso), Kyle Ferill (José Tripaldi), Wade Thomas) Maestro), Alex Richardson (Bullfighter), Ginger Shankar, Sindhu Chandra Giedd (Voices of the Fountain)
Adam del Monte, Scott Kurey (guitars), Gonzalo Grau (Percussion), Jeremy Flower (Sampler), Rick Jacobson (Sound Design), Women of the New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum (Director), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Robert Spano (Conductor)

Kelley O’Connor & Dawn Upshaw (© Richard Termine)

Oswaldo Golijov only disguises himself like a chameleon. In his bountiful bouquet of works, he has donned the musical robes of Talmudist and Imam, Spaniard and Cuban, he replicates Medieval chants, Moorish intonations and Argentinean dances, sometimes in concert, sometimes opposing each other, frequently in a stylish quodlibet .

But this is neither affectation nor adornment. Jewish-Argentinean by birth he is a student of the pre-Renaissance tropes, Arab and Hebraic chants, and of course the rhythms of his own continent. The miracle is not that he can do all these things, but that all of his music is so accessible and sophisticated at the same time.

True enough, a second or third listening to a recording is usually enough: the conscious and unperceivable are pretty apparent by then. But at first hearing, any work of Golijov is both jolting and mesmeric.

Yesterday’s concert version of his one-act opera—based on an actress’s memories about the Fascist assassination of poet Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War—was my first hearing. But it has reportedly been revised several times, so few have heard the “finished” opera. The staging, I am certain, is beautiful, with the colors, décor and probably surrealistic effects which the poet inspires. While the concert performance lacked this, it did possess its original begetter, Dawn Upshaw, conducting by Robert Spano, St. Luke’s proficient orchestra and absolutely beautiful singing by the Women’s Chorus of the New York Virtuoso Singers.

The opera itself, barely 80 minutes long in three “images”, is a wonderful piece for any musicians. The libretto by David Henry Hwang (translated into Spanish by the composer) retells the memories by Margarita Xirgu, a Catalan actress on her own day of death, to her young student. The memories encompass not only women singing lamentations and a folkish melody for each image, but the appearance by Lorca himself (a mezzo-soprano), of the assassins, and by the amplified voice of the killers and the propaganda radio. Other sounds include the computerized sounds of horses and the frightening gunshots as Lorca and two other victims, a teacher and bullfighter, are down.

The memories includes a meeting between poet and actress, her plea for him to join her in Cuba, and his fierce desire to stay: “I want to sing amidst the explosions, I want to sing an immense song; Spain is a bull burning alive.”

He didn’t stay long. He was shot, and—in an all too glib ending reminiscent of Joe Hill—he returns to the actress “alive as you and me” (That was from the Earl Robinson song, not Hwang’s didactic poems about liberty and freedom.)

The music to the opera, though, is anything bud didactic. The rhythms are predominantly Spanish, save for a Cuban interlude, but the essentially female ensemble work rides a contrapuntal fountain above the large orchestra, its offstage trumpets, its flamenco, gypsy and classical guitars near the end, and a host of fine orchestral effects.

The 80 minutes have no hesitation: the orchestra pulses and vibrates, and the singers each edge each other forward, with excitement, with (sometimes) some thrilling arias and always the sense that we are listening to something momentous.

Yes, a grouch might see these ensembles as theatrical devices, like the end of Tosca’s first act. But then, this is theatre, so Golijov takes advantage of its little tricks.

And this brings up Ms. Upshaw. Not her voice, which can assume all shapes, which reaches the top (in one part) or growls in sorrow at another. That is simply her personal miracle. But every time I have heard her, in opera or performance, I feel her own feeling at the time. She is a superb tragédienne. But more important, one must follow her as Marguerite and suffer her own pain. The is a dazzlement, and, and her gift to our world.

Her “student”, Emily Albrink, has a lovely sopano, even if her role is somewhat passive. Kelley O’Connor, who was in the original production, is not only in male drag as Lorca, but has a terrific male falsetto at times. Not all the tunes are inspired, but later, her singing, as "she"confesses crimes before the frightening execution gunshots, is stunningly composed and sung.

As for the Fascist spokesman, standing in the back of the orchestra, his tenor blazoning out doom for all who would oppose the Party, Jesús Montoya was a frightening specter at a frightening time.

The entire experience, though, is of an ensemble, held together by Mr. Spano, whose conducting was exciting, vigorous, at times electrifying. His presence here is always welcomed, his desertion from Brooklyn for the fragrant magnolias of Georgia will not be forgiven until he can stand before another firing squad and give a fervent confession of his sin. Before that, we poor New Yorkers will have to be satisfied with his meteoric arrivals and cosmic conducting.

Harry Rolnick



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