Long Beach Opera presents stunning production of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar”

Long Beach Opera's "Ainadamar" by Osvaldo Golijov. Suzan Hanson, Peabody Southwell, Chorus, Dance Ensemble. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

A stunning production, gorgeously sung, and superbly played by LBO’s orchestra

Review by David Gregson, Monday, May 21

“Ainadamar” is the “aardvark” of my iTunes library. Whenever something goes wrong on my Mac, I hear the distant opening trumpet passages of Osvaldo Golijov’s most successful work as my entire MP3 “library” attempts to unfurl from the alpha to the omega of my 10 zillion music choices. Often, out of pure laziness, I just let it play for several minutes before doing anything about it. As result, I have become heartily sick of this piece. The bland sweet voice of Dawn Upshaw makes me cringe. For those not in the know, it’s the Deutsche Grammophon CD conducted by Robert Spanos with the Atlanta Symphony.

Fortunately, the Long Beach Opera’s current production drove all such negative connotations from my head.

I even found myself utterly beguiled by a score that had begun to bore me on the recording. And a score by a composer who has driven me to the brink of fury by not making his deadlines. I was just in Berlin a few weeks ago to hear, among many other things, Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Golijov’s newly commissioned Violin Concerto (with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist) and — surprise! — the piece was withdrawn and Dudamel offered the Korngold Violin Concerto (a piece I actually detest) as a substitute. Curse You Osvaldo Golijov! (My Berlin adventures appear here at Opera West, just below the my most recent posts.)

Peabody Southwell, Suzan Hanson. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

The 6 p.m. pre-performance lecture for “Ainadamar” yesterday (just before a 7 p.m. performance) had to compete with the noise and crowded streets and packed parking lots caused by nearby Gay Pride festivities. Not to mention an annular eclipse of the sun. The Gay Pride parade had taken place much earlier in the day, but it was still hellzapoppin all around. A goodly crowd filled a southeast corner of the Terrace Theatre (with its huge glass windows) to hear speakers Gregorio Luke, who delivered impassioned readings of Lorca’s poetry in Spanish, and company artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek, who made informative introductory remarks. With all the distractions, I am not certain if anyone talked about the serendipitous connection between the Gay Pride events and the opera, “Ainadamar” (Fountain of Tears in Arabic): the opera deals with the death of Federico Garcia Lorca, one of the greatest 20th-century poets — and a gay man.

Nothing on the celebrated DG recording can equal the musical excellence or pure beauty achieved in Long Beach. The magnificent orchestra, revealed to our eyes only at the very end, was seated invisibly on the stage itself behind the singers, dancers and acrobats. The excellent conductor, Steven R. Oswood, achieved stunning results. The superb guitar contributions (Adam Del Monte and Kenton Youngstrom) were especially welcome, but the balances and dynamics were always remarkable, producing a magical/mystical range of coloration. Strings, winds and percussion blended into wondrous textures.

Although the text was written by David Henry Hwang (and translated from English into Spanish), the “drama” per se is really a series of tableaux — called “images” by their authors: (1) Mariana — which depicts the famous Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu’s first meeting with Lorca, author of a ballad called “Mariana”; (2) Federico — a scene culminating in Lorca’s murder in Granada, and (3) Margarita — Xirgu’s last hours in the presence of the spirit of Lorca. Needless to say, the “opera” eschews traditional operatic conflicts and confrontations, a fact that causes some listeners to call the work an “oratorio” or to reject it altogether. It seems to me, opera is more and more evolving away from the traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Philip Glass has long composed works that are more meditative than dramatic — and Golijov is working in this newer genre.

Ani Maldjian, Suzan Hanson. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

Because LBO is something of a repertory company, featuring the same singers repeatedly from production to production, it was no surprise to me at all to be blown away by the performances of Suzan Hanson as Margarita Xirgu (although I would have enjoyed more volume of sound than Hanzon produced during the first part of the opera); and Ani Maldjian, wonderful as Nuris; and especially Peabody Southwell as Lorca — a really striking performance, gorgeously vocalized.

In some ways, LBO’s greatest recent “discovery” is interactive video designer, Frieder Weiss, who simply does not think like anyone else doing video projections these days. He contributed immensely to the success of “Akhnaten” last season. He is a true artist whose images are never exactly what you would expect. The production, something that looked like waves of fabric going every which way, was conceived by Mitisek (who also directed), but it was Weiss who transformed it all into a living, breathing contemporary “installation” — a mesmerizing, almost sentient breathing space inhabited by Nannette Brodies’s wonderful dancers and the brilliant cast. Wonderful choral sounds emanated from hidden spaces (thanks to Benjamn Makino). Lighting designer Dan Weingarten and sound designer Bob Christian also contributed substantially to this alternate universe.

To me, it was all far better than anything Robert Lepage has done, although there was one major Lepage influence in this show: Cirque du Soliel-type acrobats on wires. This worked well, however, as the people depicted flying into the mystical space were supposed to be the departing souls of those executed by Franco’s fascist minions.

This “Ainadamar” was a moving, beautiful experience. The Long Beach Opera website has everything else you need to know including important information about Lorca, Golijov and Spain under Franco.

Peabody Southwell, Suzan Hanson, Dance Ensemble. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff.

Margarita Xirgu – Suzan Hanson
Federico García Lorca – Peabody Southwell
Nuria – Ani Maldjian
Ruiz Alonzo – Jesus Montoya
Jose Tripaldi – Nicholas Shelton
Maestro (a teacher) – Roberto Perlas Gomez
Torero (a bullfighter) – John Atkins
Ensemble – Linda Alexander, Lesli Beard, Danielle Marcelle Bond, Melinda Ehrlick, Callista Hoffman, Susan Kotses, Jennifer Miller, Nandani Sinha
Dancers – Alicia Arguilla, Javier Gonzalez, Alexis Loffer, Stephanie Maxim, Joseph Szekula, Ismael Valadez

Conductor – Steven R. Oswood
Director/Production Designer – Andreas Mitisek
Choreographer – Nannette Brodie
Interactive Video Designer – Frieder Weiss
Light Designer – Dan Weingarten
Sound Designer – Bob Christian

Terrace Theater, Long Beach
Sun. May 20, 2012 – 7PM
Sat. May 26, 2012 – 8PM

Long Beach Opera
90 minutes, no intermission


  1. William Smith on May 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Question. Does LBO use electronic amplification? It seems the guitars at least must have been amplified. I remember a speaker going bad the first night of Akhnaten, which makes me think they use amplification in general.

    I agree with your review. I loved the production. My wife and I kept ducking in and out of the lecture to view the eclipse of the sun through a filter one of the opera staff outside provided. The ticket taker was most tolerant of philistine-like behavior. The eclipse was fabulous.

    • David on May 22, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      I wondered about the possible amplification too, but electronic enhancement seems to be more and more common these days, especially in contemporary operas.

  2. Arline Korb on May 21, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    You were correct. David Gregson’s review is outstanding.

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