Death, duende and dance

When asked about their tendency to write for women, Federico García Lorca and Pedro Almodóvar both stated as a key consideration the superiority, in their view, of Spanish actresses over their male counterparts. Lorca’s theatrical breakthrough came with Mariana Pineda, a mythical rewriting of the life of the wealthy eponymous martyr (1804-31) from his native Granada, executed for her liberal convictions during the second absolutist reign of Ferdinand VII. The play was written between 1923 and 1925, but did not have its premiere until the popular actress Margarita Xirgu agreed to take on the lead role. The first production was staged in 1927 in Barcelona with sets by Salvador Dalí, whose eroticized friendship with Lorca was entering its terminal phase.

Osvaldo Golijov’s opera, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, Ainadamar – “Fountain of Tears” in Arabic – is centerd on the lives and, crucially, deaths of Pineda, Lorca and Xirgu. The last of these is the protagonist, looking back on her life from exile in Uruguay. She recalls staging Mariana Pineda and regrets that she was unable to convince Lorca to leave Spain before the outbreak of the bloody civil war in 1936.

Although Ainadamar was first performed in Tanglewood in August 2003, the Spanish premiere of the opera at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2012 contributed to a continuing conversation about historical memory in a country that, Golijov’s native Argentina, granted amnesty for the crimes committed during Franco’s dictatorship. Ainadamar has previously been performed in concert form at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, but Scottish Opera’s new co-production constitutes the first full staging in the UK.

Rapturously received by a near-full house on its opening night in Glasgow, the eighty-minute-long Ainadamar is as brisk as is it is intense. Opera singers are less accustomed to Spanish than to Italian, but the cast acquitted themselves respectably in terms of accent, though some struggled with vocal projection. As a result, even speakers of Spanish were often reliant on the surtitles. The fact that the libretto was originally written in English (Golijov translated it into Spanish) ensured that these weren’t blighted with the howlers often found in surtitles and program notes. The singers did not always have the opportunity to shine, however, with dialogue seemingly composed primarily for dramatic rather than musical effect.

The mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey looked like the iconic photos of Lorca, but in co-ordination of gesture and voice the soprano Lauren Fagan as Xirgu was unequalled. Stuart Stratford, the conductor, effectively guided the orchestra through a diverse range of musical styles, including Andalusian flamenco and Cuban rumba. International talent was marshalled to maximize the production’s assault on the senses. Making her debut in opera, the Brazilian director Deborah Colker – who has worked with Cirque du Soleil and was director of movement for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics – ensured a smooth and swift transition between a rapid succession of visual tableaux. Madrid-born Antonio Najarro provided choreography for the dancers Juan Pedro Delgado, Julia Fernández, Aitor Hernández and Josie Sinnadurai, all of whom have a background in flamenco.

Blending popular and high-cultural performance styles is axiomatic to Golijov’s rejection of the “less is more” aesthetic, which found a correlative in the mise en scène and production style. Echoing the stage design of stadium DJ acts, images were projected onto a circular transparent scrim through which the action could be viewed or revealed.

A charging bull sits on the audience in southern Spain, as well as delivering an omen of death. Behind the curtain is a small raised wooden platform, much like those still used in hundreds of flamenco taverns in Spain. The curtain opens to reveal a Madrid barroom where Lorca is charming Xirgu into being his leading lady. The tone is playful, but an ominous foreboding lingers. Flamenco, the real-life Lorca theorized, like bullfighting, was the ultimate expression of duenda necro-aesthetic channelling an awareness of the finite nature of life and the inexorability of death through performances designed to elate performers and audiences alike in a form of holy communion.

Preceded by a violent electronic soundscape, images of a bull – this time led by the matador’s cloth and sword – also appear just before Lorca’s execution by firing squad alongside a banderillero (assistant bullfighter) and a teacher who faces death by reeling off the educational achievements of the Second Republic. The discourse of the “two Spains” – one parochial and authoritarian, the other liberal and open to Europe – is a legacy of the nineteenth century that culminated in the civil war. If Mariana Pineda foreshadowed this bloody showdown, flamenco is the musical terrain on which the battle is staged in Ainadamar. Rhythms and movements associated with the genre appear throughout the score, but flamenco singing is restricted to the poet’s nemesis and executioner Ruiz Alonso, an officer of the fascist Falange party, played by Alfredo Tejada, a renowned flamenco singer.

It is difficult to know how many audience members would be aware that the battle cry (sung and projected onto the circular curtains) of “Viva la muerte”, or “Long live death”, was used in real life, or that the messages about the need for mass extermination to purify Spain belong to the historical record. The density and speed of political and poetic allusions were too much for any spectator – or, at least, this spectator – to be sure of capturing all the ricocheting messages. No prior knowledge was required, though, to respond viscerally to a production and choreography that foreground the importance of geometry, order and ritual to the death cult of fascist ethics and flamenco aesthetics. Incorporating wooden sticks – a hallmark of much flamenco performance – extended Lorca’s integration into a genealogy of martyrdom beyond Pineda’s, evoking Christ’s stations of the cross.

If the 2012 Madrid production intervened in a particular political debate, the subsequent rise of the global far right results in a more universal battle cry against totalitarianism. Populist anti-fascist rhetoric about Lorca’s pen being as powerful a weapon as guns is indicative of a libretto that often seeks political earnestness while also indulging in melodrama. But this unconventional opera delivers a powerful combination of punches. The verve, energy and inventiveness of this production constitutes a knockout collective experience, but it remains to be seen whether a tendency towards pastiche and rapid-fire delivery will help or hinder Ainadamar to transcend the present and become a contemporary classic.

Duncan Wheeler is Chair of Spanish Studies at Leeds University and the author of, most recently, Following Franco: Spanish culture and politics in transition2020

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