Violence without, family secrets within—and endless debate about both

By Lawrence A. Johnson

SANTA FE: The milieu of Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater is at once distant and uncomfortably familiar: a bleak, nocturnal landscape inhabited by rifle-carrying terrorists and hooded hostages, marked by patrols and rumors of war, where fear and uncertainty rule, and a greater danger exists from allies than from the unseen enemy.

Saariaho’s second opera, unveiled at the Opera National de Paris in 2006, is having its American premiere this summer at Santa Fe Opera, where the Finnish composer’s critically acclaimed L’Amour de loin was heard in 2002.

Adriana Mater takes place in a contemporary setting that suggests the Balkans or—in the bunker-like dwelling—the Middle East. With the outbreak of war imminent, Adriana is accosted by a drunken man, Tsargo, who reminds her that they once danced together a year ago. Following a mystical dream sequence, the loutish Tsargo returns as a soldier and, when Adriana harshly rebuffs him, he breaks down her door and rapes her.

Seventeen years later, Adriana’s son, Yonas, learns the truth about his conception, and, enraged at his mother for not disclosing the rape, vows to murder his father in revenge. Yonas seeks and finds Tsargo and at the moment he is going to shoot him, discovers the criminal is blind, and cannot pull the trigger. Yonas asks Adriana to forgive his weakness. She replies that she was fearful that Yonas would grow up to be evil like his father but now knows that he is from her blood and not a monster, “We are not avenged ” she tells Yonus at the curtain. “We are saved.”

Hardly a light-hearted romp, this. Saariaho and librettist Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese journalist-turned-novelist, deserve credit for tackling such a downbeat personal tale with its ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy of today’s dangerous world.

Santa Fe Opera’s production of Adriana Mater, seen Friday evening, has much going for it: a first-rate cast and conductor, otherworldly scenic design by George Tsypin and intelligent, surprisingly unobtrusive direction by Peter Sellars.

Yet even with Saariaho’s compelling music, Adriana Mater is a static, unsuccessful work, the attempt to merge the real and dreamlike resulting in a talky, often pretentious opera, with an interminable climactic scene between Adriana and Yonas that seemed longer than Parsifal.

The good news is the music. Saariaho is one of the most original and distinctive composers working today and her restless, shimmering constantly morphing score sounds like no one else’s The vocal lines are lyrical yet often fragmented, part of an undulating musical tapestry. Saariaho’s usual elements are there—the luminous scoring, instrumental slides, crystalline high percussion— but with a new toughness and visceral power, as with the violent chords for orchestra and chorus that accompany the offstage rape of Adriana. This is intensely difficult, highly detailed music of wide dynamic contrasts yet was put across with both refinement and tremendous power by conductor Ernest Martinez Izquierdo and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.

The main problem with Adriana Mater is that, apart from the confrontation between Yonas and Tsargo—-for two and one-half hours there is endless conversation between the four characters and little stage action to hold one’s interest even with Tsypin’s beautiful, glowing geometric set. Maalouf’s French libretto relies on repetitive talk that veers between the baldly didactic and stilted, would-be-poetic imagery (“I unveil my skin that I gather in an ancient garden” or “You are the death of death.”) I realize bad writing always sounds better in French, but still . . .

As Adriana, Monica Groop delivers a tour-de-force performance, with equally strong singing by Joseph Kaiser as Yonas, Matthew Best as Tsargo and Pie Freund as Adriana’s sister, Refka. Apart from the corny, patented gesture of all four characters raising their hands in supplication, Sellars’ direction was understated and effective.

Even with Maalouf’s self-conscious libretto and the oratorio-like stiffness, Saariaho’s majestic score makes Adriana Mater worth salvaging in a more concise, revised form. Eliminate the character of Refka, cut 45 minutes to an hour of the metaphysical debate society, and a short two acts or even 90-minute one-act Adriana would more effectively sound its important themes without the audience squirming in their seats. Saariaho’s music deserves better.

The final performance of Adriana Mater is August 12. Tickets are $25-$180.

[Pictured Monica Groop as Adriana in Adriana Mater. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.]

Posted in opera review, Performances

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Sun Aug 10, 2008
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