There’s a lot to love in Quantum Theatre’s presentation of Osvaldo Golijov’s opera Ainamadar. Golijov’s music is lush and moving; his evocative soundscape of early twentieth-century Spain draws on a wide range of musical idioms — from flamenco to love song to martial music to afro-cuban dance music to keening dirge – to meditate on Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s death and on his relationship to the actress Margarita Xirgu, who had played the leading role in Lorca’s play Mariana Pineda, which, in turn, tells the story of a revolutionary martyr from the 19th century. The first-rate orchestra is conducted with sensitivity and intelligence by the gifted Andres Cladera. The vocal performances are gorgeous: sopranos Katy Williams and Leah Edmondson-Dyer are powerful as Margarita Xirgu and Nuria, and mezzo Raquel Winnica Young is sonorous and stately as Lorca. Perhaps the most memorable performance of the evening is that of Carolina Loyola-Garcia, whose flamenco dancing is surpassed only by her intense, arresting vocal solos as the Falangist Ruiz Alonso. And then there are the stunning and at times heartbreaking video images by Joe Seamans, which function at some moments to set the scene more firmly in its historical time and place, and at others to elevate it into the realm of metaphor or to provide visual commentary and juxtaposition.
I’ve confessed in a recent post that I am a relative newcomer to opera, and not always precisely sure what I should be watching (for) – the music, the story, the spectacle, the quality of voice, the acting…? Ainadamar is immensely, hugely satisfying as a musical event; less so as a story, as theatre. This is partly due to the libretto itself, which is more poetic-evocative than narrative, with cryptic lyrics and a three-part structure that offers distilled crystallizations of events in lieu of a linear story, making it challenging to figure out the relationships between characters and events. And unfortunately, Quantum’s staging exacerbates the difficulty of making sense of the story. The scene design puts the audience along both sides of a narrow alleyway that is the performance space; at one end is a stage for the orchestra, at the other, a screen for the video, in front of which a good deal of the action takes place. The supertitle translations are projected onto screens behind each section of the audience, which means that spectators who don’t understand Spanish must shift focus side to front to side and back again — from supertitle screen to performer to video screen to ensemble to singer in the balcony – and if they’re not careful about returning at the right moment to the supertitle screen, they risk missing some of the translations and losing what thin thread of story there is. I was quickly frustrated by the setup and gave up trying to follow the supertitles (and, consequently, to make sense of the story). I settled in to simply immerse myself in the music and spectacle, but I remained puzzled by the scenographic arrangement: the piece has such a terrific gestalt, why force an audience to divide its attention in such a way?
To be fair, there is a detailed synopsis of the story in the program, and I probably would have felt less baffled by the story had I had time to fully read it before the performance began; when you go to see Ainamadar — and you should! — plan to arrive a good 15 minutes early to allow time to read and absorb the synopsis. (We could argue about whether or not an audience member should need a plot summary to understand a work of performance, but here’s not the place where I want to pursue that line of inquiry). Or you can decide not to worry about it, and just let yourself be enveloped in Gojilov’s stunning and moving musical landscape. There’s certainly enough here to pleasure the aural and visual senses that the narrative appetite can be left unsated.