The New York Times
The New York Times

August 13, 2003


New Operas Remember the Agony of Lovers Left Behind


LENOX, Mass., Aug. 11 The opera program at the Tanglewood Music Center, the training institute run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its summer home here, attracted international attention early on. In 1946 it presented the American premiere of Britten's "Peter Grimes," a work commissioned by the conductor Serge Koussevitzky. That performance was conducted by a promising Koussevitzky protégé, Leonard Bernstein, and opera continued to be a major component of the center for 20 years.

But the program then languished until the late 1980's, when the conductor Seiji Ozawa spearheaded its revival. On Sunday and Monday nights the center again attracted international attention through an ambitious offering: the world premieres of one-act operas by Robert Zuidam and Osvaldo Golijov, both alumni of the institute. The works were commissioned by the Boston Symphony.

At Sunday night's performance "Rage d'Amours," by the Dutch-born Mr. Zuidam, 38, though a grim tale and a slow-paced score, seemed a formidable work. Mr. Golijov, 43, the Argentine-born composer of Eastern European Jewish descent, could not be hotter right now, having won throngs of admirers for works like his exuberant "Pasión Según San Marco" that elegantly draw from Latin American, Hebrew, ethnic folk and Western classical traditions.

Given Mr. Golijov's high promise and enormous gifts, his one-act opera "Ainadamar" was a major disappointment. He has conceded in recent interviews that he was late in composing this 70-minute score and that it had the earmarks of a rush job.

Mr. Zuidam also wrote the libretto to his 60-minute "Rage d'Amours," which tells of Juana of Castile, the third child of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and her obsessive love for her husband, the Hapsburg prince known as Philip the Handsome, apparently for good reason. The opera explores the jealous fits of Juana, called la Loca (the Mad One), during her brief marriage and the catatonic state of mourning she maintained after Philip's death. She survived him by 46 years, living in isolation, indifferent to her personal hygiene.

Mr. Zuidam adapted his libretto from original Spanish, Latin and medieval texts. In a daring stroke, three sopranos of differing vocal character portray Juana at varied stages of her life. During long passages they also sing eerie, melodically jagged and achingly beautiful trios as they wail over Philip's coffin.

With its deliberate pace, thick-textured sound, primordial stirrings and heaving chordal shifts, the music might have sunk into self-conscious inexorableness. But Mr. Zuidam brings to bear such a keen ear for harmony and such great imagination for textural and instrumental combinations that this halting score keeps you hooked. During extended episodes, skittish rhythmic figurations and astringently atonal contrapuntal lines deftly mingle atop discrete sustained bass tones to convey an effect of tonal grounding.

You welcome a moment of comic relief when a servant woman scrubbing the floor complains that there is nothing to do, since the widowed queen seldom washes, eats or emerges from her chambers. In this scene a grumbling low-pitched line on a contrabass clarinet cavorts with a high solo flute as the young woman (Laura Lendman) voices her breezy thoughts, and for a moment we get some space in the pervasive aural thickness.

During a later scene, when the soprano Lucy Shelton, in the leading role of Juana I, sings a soliloquy of madness and mourning over the coffin, you think to yourself, "Been there, done that," despite Ms. Shelton's tour de force performance. Gershwin achieved comparable intensity in "My Man's Gone Now" in just about four minutes.

Still, with "Rages d'Amours" Mr. Zuidam announces himself as a composer to reckon with. Stefan Asbury drew an accomplished and shimmering performance from the excellent Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Standouts in the remaining cast, drawn from the center's vocal fellows, were the sopranos Rochelle Bard and Amy Synatzske as Juanas II and III, and the tenor Eric Shaw, who looked the part, as Philip the Handsome.

With a libretto by David Henry Hwang, written in English and translated into Spanish by Mr. Golijov, his "Ainadamar" ("Fountain of Tears") is a memory opera set in Uruguay during the 1960's. The soprano Dawn Upshaw portrays the actress Margarita Xirgu, who in an opening scene is about to perform her signature role in an early play by the poet Federico García Lorca: Mariana Pineda, the 19th-century Spanish folk heroine.

Margarita was in the midst of a life-transforming relationship with García Lorca when he was arrested and murdered by fascist rebels in Spain in 1936. Though the opera shows the elder Margarita recalling García Lorca, scenes from their youths, including his brutal death, are enacted by doubles drawn from the all-female chorus. The sense of mystery is enhanced by having women play all but two minor roles.

Though dramatic events occur in the opera, the story itself is a recollection and lacks narrative tension. This would be no problem, if there were more tension in the music. In places you hear palpable evidence of Mr. Golijov's great skills: some duets for the older and younger Margarita in which ruminative vocal lines are enshrouded by hazy, luminous, bittersweet orchestra harmonies; some playful song-and-dance numbers for the women's chorus sung with an intentionally nasal Latin American twang.

And there are brilliant episodes of taped music: when the sounds of gurgling water and galloping horses are terrifyingly merged, and when the rifle shots that take down García Lorca are turned into crazed rhythmic volleys.

But whole patches of the score sound like generic Latinized vamping. Over droning pedal tones, slinky minor-mode melodies in the strings or voices spin and turn, film-scorish music that makes a big deal out of prolonging the half-step dissonance before the melody resolves into the tonic pedal tone. And an early episode of percussion in which the players break into hand-clapping makes you think of the Copacabana band.

Ms. Upshaw, one of the most intelligent musicians around, sang with beguiling beauty and conveyed a sense that she believed utterly in the importance of this music. The conductor Robert Spano drew a colorful and accomplished performance from the orchestra. The mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor as the young García Lorca and the soprano Amanda Forsythe as the young Margarita were also impressive.

Perhaps Mr. Golijov can attend to this score before the opera comes to the New Visions series of Lincoln Center's Great Performances in late October, though the prolonged cheers he received from the Tanglewood audience may have convinced him that the work was fine as is. Some enthusiasm was no doubt a response to the entire project of commissioning and producing these works in simple but tellingly lighted and effective stagings by the director Chay Yew.

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