Frost Opera Theater reaches new heights with Golijov-Stravinsky double-bill

By Lawrence Budmen

Alan Johnson conducted Michael Dellaira's "The Death of Webern" Thursday night at Frost Opera Theater.

Alan Johnson conducted Golijov’s “Ainadamar” Thursday night at UM’s Frost Opera Theater.

A 20th-century appetizer and a bold music drama by a major 21st-century composer formed the outstanding double bill produced by the University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater Thursday night at UM Gusman Concert Hall.

Under the direction of Alan Johnson, the Frost school’s opera department has produced a series of innovative productions in recent seasons. This pairing of Igor Stravinsky’s Mavra and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar exceeds all previous offerings. Outstanding performances across the board by the casts in both operas, superb playing by members of the Frost Symphony Orchestra and director Jeffrey Buchman’s brilliant staging were far above the student level and would have graced the stages of many a regional opera company.

Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears), premiered in 2003 and substantially revised in 2005, is a searing music drama about the relationship between the actress Margarita Xirgu and martyred poet and playwright Federico García Lorca and their symbolic bond with 19th century Spanish heroine Mariana Pineda. David Henry Hwang’s libretto frames the action as Xirgu, late in life, prepares to play another performance of Lorca’s play about Pineda who was executed by the monarchy for advocating freedom and equality for the people of Spain. In three flashbacks she recalls her first meeting with Lorca, her attempt to convince him to come to Havana with her for a tour of the play, and his execution, apparently by the Fascist army under Francisco Franco, during the early days of the Spanish Civil War.

A choir of female singers and 5 flamenco dancers act as a Greek chorus, commenting on the tragedy of Spanish history ancient and modern. Part docudrama, part existential rumination on art and history, Hwang’s libretto is brilliantly conceived, connecting seemingly disparate incidents and characters into a larger framework. The cries of “Long live death” over speakers emerge with frightening immediacy.

The Argentine Golijov has often created scores from a musical melting pot of Latin, gypsy, Judaic and Arabic influences. In some of his works these varied elements do not blend well but, in Ainadamar, Golijov’s fusion is pitch-perfect. Working with Hwang’s superb Spanish-language text, Golijov displays first-rate musico-dramatic instincts.

A solo trumpet sets the languid Latin mood at the outset, live percussion blending with taped percussive strokes suggesting the tragedy to come. Flamenco was central to Lorca’s artistic aesthetic and it is a central component of Golijov’s colorful score. Three guitars figure prominent in the large orchestral component. Golijov’s musical palette spans the Latin pop of the imagined scene in Cuba, the spare polyphony of the choral dirge, the wild Middle Eastern tinged melodies of a symbolic dance of death and a calmly uplifting final trio that takes lyrical flight in the best operatic manner. The eerie effect of marimba sounding over pianissimo strings before the bloodbath that will strike down Lorca and his followers is spine-tingling.

The role of Xirgu, who carried on Lorca’s artistic legacy, was conceived for soprano Dawn Upshaw, a champion of Golijov and many other contemporary composers. Mia Rojas, who was highly impressive in last season’s Frost Opera production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica, brought a powerful voice and singularly commanding stage presence to the intrepid tragedian. Although the voices were amplified (skillfully) with body mikes, Rojas’ sizable instrument hardly needed any electronic assistance. She captured Xirgu’s anguish in dark, voluminous tones and inflected the text with deep emotional resonance. Her upper range turned transcendent in Xirgu’s death scene which was all the more moving for its simplicity and lack of operatic histrionics.

Zaray Rodriguez’s warm mezzo encompassed the dashing Lorca, stunning in black tie when first meeting Xirgu for his new play. When Lorca proclaims he will remain in Spain and sing for art over violence, Rodriuez was so impassioned one could believe it. Her dusky timbre blended beautifully in trio with Rojas and Ana Collado as Nuria, Xirgu’s assistant and protégé. Collado’s fine lyric soprano scaled the high vocal range of the ingénue who is both in awe and bewildered by Xirgu’s dedication to Lorca and his cause.

Max Moreno, Salvador de Angela, Mario Almonte and Cameron Sledjeski were excellent in finely etched cameo roles. The female chorus was well balanced and solo dancers Esther Pardo and Lindy Rodriguez excelled in Rosa Mercedes’ fast-paced choreography.

Johnson masterfully conducted Golijov’s score, never allowing the dramatic momentum to flag and drawing luminous textures from the student players. Rebecca Montero’s projection designs of walled graffiti, the ocean off the Cuban shore, blood-drenched walls and religious symbols were stunning and eye filling. Buchman and choreographer Mercedes staged a series of powerful tableaux that carried the drama forward in thrilling fashion. Mercedes’ choreography was intrinsic to the drama, ranging far beyond standard flamenco patterns.

Mavra, the evening’s hor d’oeuvre, finds Stravinsky mixing his primitive Russian sound of the almost contemporaneous Les Noces with neo-classical strains. The tale of two lovers, a domineering mother and a nosy neighbor was staged by Buchman in amusing fashion, suggesting the commedia dell’arte manner with clown makeup and pantomime.

Yueh-Yin Liao conducted a crisply articulated performance of this 30-minute charmer. Sarah Wee’s agile high soprano and Andres Lasaga’s bright tenor were an entrancing pair of lovers. As the mother, Anna Doulong seemed a born cabaret artist, parodying the mock Russian folk melodies in husky tones. Anna Carruthers was a hilarious neighbor with a lovely soprano timbre that suggested bigger roles may be in order.

There is only one remaining performance of this outstanding double bill. Lovers of opera and music theater should not miss this stunning realization of Golijov’s musical tragedy and Stravinsky’s comedic soufflé.

The Frost Opera Theater repeats Mavra and Ainadamar 7:30 p.m. Saturday at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Frost Opera Theater reaches new heights with Golijov-Stravinsky double-bill”

  1. Posted Apr 16, 2016 at 6:21 pm by Thomas Sleeper

    Alan Johnson is truly a treasure for South Florida and the Frost School is VERY fortunate to have him.

Leave a Comment

Fri Apr 15, 2016
at 12:13 pm
1 Comment