The New York Times

OPERA REVIEWS

BSO pair have a Spanish flair
Well-matched 'Rage' and 'Ainadamar' stir Tanglewood passions

By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, 8/12/2003

LENOX -- Nearly 60 years ago Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitzky commmissioned a new opera for the orchestra's summer music school, the Tanglewood Music Center. Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" turned out to be one of the greatest operas of the 20th century.

Perhaps intimidated by having set the bar so high, the BSO has not repeated the experiment until recently, when it commissioned two one-act operas for the TMC, "Rage d'Amours" from Robert Zuidam and "Ainadamar" from Osvaldo Golijov. Both works officially entered the world Sunday night to enthusiastic applause from an engaged and partisan audience.

The composers worked independently, but both arrived at subjects set in Spain and involving historical figures; there were many other coincidences as well -- the first note of "Ainadamar" came from the same sound world as "Rage d'amours" -- but it is hard to see how two works could also offer as many contrasts as these did.

Zuidam's piece is set in the 16th century, and there are striking traces of the music of that period in his score, but the predominant musical idiom is contemporary. The Dutch composer compiled his own libretto from historical documents, but Zuidam's juxtapositions place them in the realm of the grotesque, somewhere between tragedy and black comedy. The story is that of the mad Queen of Castille, Juana la Loca, who loved her philandering husband Philip the Handsome to the excesses of madness and who spent nearly half a century after his death contemplating his tomb.

Zuidam casts three sopranos as Juana, assigning them keening vocal lines that interlock to depict the obsessive personality of the queen, always turning in on itself.

This is also an unusual and effective theatrical device, one of many in the piece -- as monks embalm the corpse, the three queens hold boxes containing his heart. Zuidam's orchestration is full of extraordinary invention; an old scrubwoman sings of Juana's madness acccompanied by the contrabass clarinet. The atmosphere throughout is oppressive; the tempos predominantly slow, but the emotional temperature is always rising until it reaches a perverse rapture at the close.

The mood was sustained by director Chay Yew's production, which made creepy things feel even creepier by presenting them as matter-of-fact, by the simple set by Daniel Ostling, the opulent costumes by Anita Yavich, and the moody lighting by Kevin Adams. The TMC orchestra played superbly for the experienced and expert conductor Stefan Asbury, and the cast was remarkable.

Lucy Shelton brought pathos and command to the principal Juana, ably supported by Rochelle Bard and Amy Synatzske; Laura Lendman was touching as the scrubwoman. Baritone Matthew Singer was the sonorous narrator, the historical composer Pierchon de Rue, and countertenor Jose Lemos was particularly effective as a monk warning of poison as Philip died of poison in front of his eyes.

Golijov's opera, on a libretto by the prominent playwright David Henry Hwang, presents aged Spanish actress Margarita Xirgu as she is about to go onstage for the last time; she reflects on the life, death, and work of the martyred Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote his great plays for her.

Hwang's flashback dramaturgy is conventional and skillful to the point of slickness, but his poetic language, and Lorca's, has inspired some astonishing music from Golijov.

The work is a series of long sinuous melodies, interrupted by brief passages of narrative recitative; the melodies are hypnotically repeated to create structures of meaning and memory. The orchestration is colorful, and there are extraordinary electronic elements built on the sound of horses (one of Lorca's obsessions) and on the sound of water (Ainadamar, "the fountain of tears," is the Moorish fountain next to which Lorca was executed). The whole piece is gorgeous and seductive.

It does need a production less pretty than the one Yew and his collaborators provided, which softened the tragedy and horror of the story and the toughness of its worldview. The musical performance led by the ferociously disciplined energy of conductor Robert Spano was truer to the nature of the work, and there were wonderful performances by Kelley O'Connor, who brought a lustrous deep mezzo voice and a focused stage presence to Lorca, by sweet-voiced soprano Amanda Forsythe as Young Margarita, and by tenor Charles Blandy, sounding like a wild flamenco singer as the arresting officer.

Beloved soprano Dawn Upshaw was almost unrecognizable as herself, with a new look, bearing, and carriage as the old Margarita, matched by new and passionate resonances in her lower voice. At the close of the opera, as Margarita joins Lorca in a love-death, Upshaw's top tones took on an unearthly radiance.

"Ainadamar" is going to tour on its own next season; it will be interesting to see how it fares without "Rage d'Amours" to set it up. Right now these operas seem to need each other.

Rage d'Amours
Opera by Robert Zuidam

Ainadamar
Opera by Osvaldo Golijov and David Henry Hwang. Presented by the Tanglewood Music Center
At: the Theater-Concert Hall, Tanglewood, Sunday

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