Detroit Opera 2022-2023 Review: Ainadamar

By John Vandevert

On April 14, 2023 Detroit Opera had its second performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s first opera, “Ainadamar.” With a libretto by David Henry Hwang, a stellar orchestra led by Paolo Bortolameolli, the opera drew a packed house and a righteous ovation at the end. Resilience is a Detroit quality and it seems DO has proven itself once again.

It was a special night, however, as the evening featured three of DO’s Resident Artists; Gabrielle Barkidjija, Ben Reisinger, and Leo Williams, Tenor, all singing exceptionally well in their small but well-executed roles. Featuring traditional Spanish dancing and a gripping score, DO has truly outdone itself. Despite a troubled start and a hectic change of hands, Detroit Opera has managed to find the right path forward.

Having successfully gained a Metropolitan Opera contract after previous controversy with the house, Golijov’s story about the uncanny relationship between hope and dread will finally be able to reach an international audience once again. “Ainadamar,” Arabic for “fountain of tears” and the name of the physical location of playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca’s execution in 1936 at the hands of Spanish nationalist during the Spanish Civil War, recounts the relationship between Lorca and actress Margarita Xirgu.

As Golijov writes, “It’s a fountain to  which Arab poets…wrote poems to the beauty, to the  peace, to the inspiration that the fountain provided to people when  these three cultures coexisted in the soil of Spain—the Muslim, the  Jewish, and the Christian.”

With a score full of references like Poulenc’s “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” Puccini’s “Suor Angelica,” Verdi’s “Aida,” and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” intertwined with tape-looped gunfire, water droplets, mechanistic drones, and broadcasts, Golijov has achieved something monumental.  A living, breathing, seeing art which stems from life and which has the ability to reflect across time and space. 

Some Background

Golijov’s first opera was written in 2003 under the heavy influence of Oliver Knussen, a fantastically neo-classical yet highly romantic and emotionally-attuned musical artist, and friendship with Lukas Foss, another neo-classical master. Having been a student of the eclectic George Crumb and the Argentine Gerardo Gandini, Golijov’s ability to transcend both aesthetic and cultural barriers is profound.

But “Ainadamar” is neither opera nor theatrical performance it must be said. Instead, traditional Spanish dance and operatic dramaturgy coalesce to create an ageless spectacle of epic proportion. Balancing between traditionalism and experimentalism, the glocal (globally local) and the “authentically” local, Golijov’s tribute to the martyred playwright is a harrowing and captivating tribute to the inky spaces between dualties of life and death, hope and fear, peace and war. 

Golijov, an Argentine by birth, worked in collaboration with Gustavo Santaolalla on the opera, with the tango composer Astor Piazzolla never far away. Argentina’s operatic relationship is complex, and stems back to the 1820s with the nation’s hard-fought independence from Spain in 1816. Interestingly, by the mid-1800s an anti-foreign nationalist vein had emerged which had frustrated Argentine’s absorption of European opera and cosmopolitan cultural development. As one scholar noted, this period was a “struggle between native “barbarism” and European “civilization” for control of Argentina.” 100 years later, the eruption of the Spanish Civil War, a brutal fight between the extreme-right and popular movements for governmental control, would push Spain into existential conflict. 

The opera deals with the concept of “duende.” Equivalent to the Stoic concepts of “momento mori” and “amor fati,” to be conscious of the beauty that lies in suffering is to be sensitive to the concept of “duende.” As artistic director Yuval Sharon noted, duende is “a demonic energy that casts an inexorable spell over anyone in its presence.” Literally, the duende is the Spanish name for a mischievous house elf called the “master of the house.” Causing mayhem, from the philosophical standpoint the mixture of safety and precarity defines the concept. In Lorca’s groundbreaking book In Search of Duende,” he defines the quality in terms of its creative potential, “a sort of corkscrew that can get art into the sensibility of an audience.” 

The artist connects to the paradox of true art by destabilizing familiarity with something that cannot be described and only experienced. As Lorca writes, “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms…and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.” The love song, as Lorca notes, embodies existential universalism, the sobering reality that all things end, that nothing is forever, “For the love song is never truly happy. It must first embrace the potential for pain.” Sharon describes Golijov’s opera as “a sonic exorcism,” and I agree. The  tenacious heartbeat mimesis between the singers, orchestra, and my mind grips and clings onto your very soul.

Death, despair, and loss is so close to all of us and yet we still are shocked when confronted with its kiss.

“The bull has its orbit; the bullfighter his, and between these two orbits is a point of danger which is the vertex of this terrible game.”

The Production’s Stars

The evening was realized through novel artistry on every front. A truly Gesamtkunstwerk realization. 

A circular, fringed curtain on a barren stage served as director Deborah Colker’s canvas for her imagination. Projected onto it were animations of bulls, flamenco hands, faces of Margarita, pulsating lights, water droplets, texts from political speeches, and at one point Lorca’s own words. The opera’s idée fixe, “Long Live Death” seemed unescapable displayed in bold lettering on the curtain. While successful, the lack of grandeur left me famished for the progeny of Karl Friedrich Schinkel like Franco Zeffirelli and Frank Gehry. Nevertheless, Colker did well considering the production’s “suitcase” nature. Colker’s usage of symbolism was, while excessive, effective. Descending (crying) stones, lights, and wooden pieces helped give the barren stage a body. The atmosphere was also defamiliarized and rendered liminal with sticky fog and the sophisticated lighting designs of Paul Keogan, and complex sound and lighting design of Mark Grey and Tal Rosner

Choreographically speaking, the neo-hellenically unified and yet continuously evolving life/dance flux was exquisitely performed. The brutality, hunger, drive, passion, humility, sadness, realism, cleanliness, bravado, sensitivity, and strength, shown by all members of the chorus and professional dancers, led by the ineffable Julia Ruiz Fernandez, demonstrated the transcendent properties that dance contains. The words in the motion, the sine qua non at the heart of one of mankind’s most visceral expressionary forms. A tip-of-the-hat to the bull-as-bullfighter Isaac Tovar and his colleagues, led by the equally ineffable Antonio Najarro. From the solitary dance opening and despondent women to the Lorca’s pursuit and erotic rumba with intricate fan work, every moment was both accounted for and effectively exploited.

The evening’s musical world was replete with equally novel pronouncements of masterful ingenuity. Golijov’s tact with bringing out the instinctual core of a singer was appreciable from the moment Gabriella Reyes stepped out. A truly open-throated and unflappable singer with all the technical know-how and adeptness expected of the operatic artist, she excelled as Margarita and sonorously argued for the deserved recognition of Spain’s creative legacy on the European stage. Everything Reyes sung contained voluptuous depth and a forever spinning vibrato, registral balance, and dynamic sensitivity. Audiences will be hard pressed to find any one “favorite,” as Golijov’s vocal writing is a sublime fit in Reyes’ voice. 

Speaking of sublime, Vanessa Vasquez as Nuria was one of the highlights of my evening. An obvious princess-in-waiting (in much needed training) to the title of powerhouse dramatically-tinged spinto, Vasquez’ penetrative instrument decried her artistic potency. At moments of high emotionality, her ability to resonate in and through the audience was a awesome display. Although a supporting role Vasquez, the fastly developing spinto, wowed the audience with her nuance and sturdy yet supple lyricism. I was also stunned by her theatrical tastefulness as well.

Completing the trio was Daniela Mack as Frederico himself, the par exemple of mezzo-sopranos and beau ideal of travesti. Despite her coloratura experiences, her chest resonance was pure silk, creamy velveteen waves upon a shore of time-tested obstacles. Her performance as the poet was brilliant, every mannerism and posture exceptional, with a handsome timbre and even more seductive, restorative, suave to the difficulties of Golijov’s writing. The serenity of Mack’s sonic artistry during the execution scene was duende incarnate, “I don’t want to die.”

Some Needed Corrections

All this being said, there were numerous errors that ate away at the efficacy of Golijov’s first opera.

Firstly, the ending was far too drawn out. At numerous points, the opera climaxed, reaching its full potential, and yet it kept going with little to no musical or dramatic development left to give. Effectively, the opera concluded and kept going, much like the misplaced but kind-hearted enthusiasm of a young lover with his love. As if this wasn’t bad enough, while symbolism was a beneficial narrative device it was used in excess to the point where little was actually spelled out for the audience, leading to a mixture of confusion and misunderstandings by those around me. The fountain was not well explained until the end and the bull never given a developed meaning outside of piece-meal correlations. For being a newly composed opera based on a figure most people have ever heard about before, you’d think being clearer would be your default but alas. 

Another downside was the sacrifice of plot between the characters for the inclusion of dance. By Act two, I was growing tired of dance and wanted to hear singing, just singing. The short run-time contributed to a jam-packed feeling, as if the opera couldn’t, or wasn’t, allowed to really breathe and take on a life of its own. It’s as if to capture the modern audience, Golijov simply wrote too much too quickly and expected us to follow along blindly. Lastly, there was an appreciable lack of context to anything. Sure, the Spanish War was hinted at but it was never made explicit why Lorca was being executed nor the reasons. It just happened. No reason. Was this canon to the history? Perhaps, but in terms of opera it left me befuddled as to why he thought that was the thing to sacrifice (pun intended)? Overall, the opera lacked a strong conclusion and simply ended when it felt like it.

Hopefully, by the time Golijov (successfully) goes to the Met, these issues will be resolved. The ending of an opera is by far the most important, and if his opera simply keeps going until it has no more energy to continue, I fear its life will be short, much like Lorca. Let’s hope a better construction is in the opera’s very bright future.


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