Visually stunning, with its dream-like video projections and steamy flamenco dancing. That's Opera Parallèle's new production of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar" ("Fountain of Tears"), which opened Friday for a short run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Lam Research Theater. There's some good singing, too. The production is ambitious, confidently executed, classy.
The problem is the one-act opera itself, which purports to meditate on the life, death and transfiguration of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca -- or, more broadly, to offer a memory-soaked statement about art and political freedom, and how never the twain shall meet. What it is, is a 75-minute bag of wind, fraught with cliches. If there were a Pulitzer Prize for stick-figure characterizations, librettist David Henry Hwang would win, hands down.
As for Golijov, the Argentinian-born American composer, famous for his integration of global folk styles -- well, he is not at his best in this work, which premiered at Tanglewood (Mass.) in 2003, then underwent significant revisions prior to its Santa Fe Opera reincarnation (directed by Peter Sellars) in 2005. It should be sent back to the drawing board once again, because -- especially in the first two of its three scenes -- Golijov's music is generic. It's as if he hit a wall with the compositional process and started deriving themes from the latest Putumayo World Music anthology.
Rumba! Flamenco! Ay! Ay! Ay!
He dresses his materials in the most gorgeous atmospherics; I'll give him that. But his building blocks lack something basic: personality.
The opera unfolds in a series of flashbacks, via the real-life character of Margarita Xirgu (soprano Marnie Breckenridge), the Spanish actress who was Lorca's close friend and creative muse. As Xirgu sings, we witness her first meeting with Lorca (mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez, in this trouser role), where she offers to play the part of 19th-century Spanish freedom proponent Mariana Pineda in one of his plays. (Lorca, in fact, wrote such a play. He directed the 1927 premiere in Barcelona, with Xirgu starring and Salvador Dali designing the sets and costumes.)
And that's about all you need to know.
Hwang thinks it's enough to set up Lorca and Pineda as historical twins: each put to death by the state, Pineda in 1831 by underlings to King Ferdinand XII, Lorca in 1936 by the Fascists. (His execution site in the Granada hills was "Ainadamar," Arabic for "Fountain of Tears.") Beyond that, there is no character development. Zilch. What made Lorca tick as an artist and man? We are only handed cliches about poetry, freedom and the revolutionary spirit.
It's all very earnest. We never learn anything of the chemistry between Xirgu and Lorca, the how and why of their connection. Instead, Xirgu keeps shouting and singing: "I love you! But you must flee! Or they will kill you." That's a paraphrase, but not by much.
Other critics have heralded "Ainadamar" as impressionistic, a fantasy, a Passion Play. I find it lacks imagination, though Golijov finds his voice toward the end, turning the rhythm of gunshots into a flamenco dance -- a startling moment. He then slows and stretches his tempos, spinning shimmery textures and a ballad or two of tender grief.
Too little, too late.
Considerable forces have been assembled by Opera Parallèle, a company that's increasingly significant on the Bay Area scene -- unparalleled in its staging of contemporary works. But artistic director/conductor Nicole Paiement and director Brian Staufenbiel are pushing a heavy boulder up a hill here. The technical wizardry of Matthew Antaky (scenic and lighting designer) and Austin Forbord (video artist) is impressive. But, stunning as it is, it's window dressing.
Too bad, as so much fine effort has gone into this production: a pair of game choruses (including members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus), a quintet of elegant flamenco dancers, led by choreographer La Tania, and the orchestra, hanging through those slow, stretchy tempos. Guitarist David Tanenbaum's Spanish classical guitar was a highlight.
There were some balance issues resulting from the amplification. (The singers wore body microphones, as instructed by the composer.) As Xirgu, soprano Marnie Breckenridge was ivory-toned -- though awfully shrieky in her closing moments; opening-night jitters? As Lorca, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez showed off smoky low notes and opalescent high ones, but in the end lacked charisma. The most impressive singers were cast in secondary roles: soprano Maya Kherani, whose voice was focused, penetrating and lustrous, as Nuria, Xirgu's student; and flamenco singer Jesus Montoya, who let it rip in the role of Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the Fascist persecutor of poet Lorca.
Presenting 'Ainadamar,' one-act opera by composer Osvaldo Golijov, with libretto by David Henry Hwang,
When: 8 p.m., Feb. 16, 2 p.m., Feb. 17
Where: Lam Research Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco
Tickets: $35-$85. 415-978-ARTS, www.ybca.org