Classical music has an "it" composer at the moment, and his name is Osvaldo Golijov. His press is ecstatic, and his publicity even more so. And for the next month, he will own part of New York, as Lincoln Center stages a festival in his honor: "The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov." That festival kicked off on Sunday afternoon with a performance of his opera, "Ainadamar," at the Rose Theater.
Mr. Golijov grew up in Argentina, in an Eastern European Jewish household. He lived in Israel for a while, before coming to the United States in 1986. He has won a passel of awards, including the MacArthur "genius grant." He has also developed a loyal following, and not just among the press: The soprano Dawn Upshaw is his most prominent vocal champion, having sung and recorded much of his music. Mr. Golijov is riding a very high wave.
The story of "Ainadamar" is complicated, but it is essentially about the following: the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca; his friendship with the actress Margarita Xirgu; and the depredations of Spanish fascism. (Garcia Lorca was killed by the fascists in 1936.) In the opera, Margarita looks back on her time with Garcia Lorca, and sings about "the beautiful dream of the Spanish Republic," lost in that dark period.
And Lincoln Center's program notes contained this very curious sentence: "... Socialist rebels established a fleeting republican democracy rather in the style of the United States (at least at that time)."
Parse that, if you will.
For his operatic team, Mr. Golijov recruited an A-list librettist and an A-list stage director. The former is David Henry Hwang, of "M. Butterfly" fame. The latter is Peter Sellars, of everything fame. Mr. Hwang wrote that libretto in English, and Mr. Golijov translated it into Spanish. The Rose Theater provided English supertitles.
Mr. Golijov's music is hailed for being eclectic, employing strands from all over. "Ainadamar" might be described as Latin American Broadway, with doses of pop, flamenco, Middle Eastern exoticism, and other things. If you know the Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin, you might think of him, as this score goes by. Often, there's a relentless beat, as in a discotheque: No matter what is happening above the beat, that beat goes on.
And although the opera is short - an hour and 20 minutes, no intermission - it felt long to me, suffering from some musical, and dramatic, repetitiveness.
A worse problem is that "Ainadamar" carries a whiff of agitprop. At least my nose thought so - others will surely disagree, strongly. For me, this opera can be crude, and crudely manipulative, with its guns, loudspeakers, dogs, and so on. "Ainadamar" would be more effective with a touch more subtlety, and fewer jackhammer blows.
The costumes are designed by Gabriel Berry, and here is a question: Are the fascist henchmen and executioners wearing U.S. Army camouflage? It appeared that way to me. The scenery is designed by Gronk - one name, please: Gronk - and it consists of a curving wall, the art on which looks like a cross between urban graffiti and "Guernica." That is exactly right for this show.
In the leading role of Margarita Xirgu was Dawn Upshaw. This versatile and winning singer is at home in Spanish, as she proves in Christmas carols, and other music. Her high notes on Sunday afternoon were as they usually are: like flying, somehow. It's amazing how Ms. Upshaw moves air through sound. Some notes were off center toward the end of the opera, when Ms. Upshaw was lying flat on her back (literally). But these errors were trivial. Ms. Upshaw was a model of professionalism and security. As the tragic Margarita, she acted her heart out.
Singing very well was the young soprano Jessica Rivera, in the role of Nuria, Margarita's student. She showed a solid technique and a pure, interesting sound - a sound not unlike Dawn Upshaw's, actually. A major career for Ms. Rivera seems inevitable. Another young singer in the cast was the mezzo Kelley O'Connor, portraying Garcia Lorca. (Yes, this is a trouser role.) She has a smoky instrument and an affinity for the stage.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke's, with admirable commitment.
A great deal is made of Osvaldo Golijov's compositional eclecticism, but he would surely tell you this is nothing new under the sun. Composers have always been eager borrowers, adapters, seekers out. Bach, for example, wrote French suites, and English suites, and an Italian concerto. For years, the contemporary American composer William Bolcom was outright mocked for his eclecticism (the critics have eased off some). Apparently, eclecticism is now cool, or at least certain kinds of eclecticism are.
The arts establishment is obviously high on Mr. Golijov. In the program distributed on Sunday afternoon, a Lincoln Center official wrote, "In presenting a festival around the music of a single composer, one is frequently asked the questions 'Why this composer?' and 'Why now?' The answer to the questions of why Osvaldo Golijov and why now is quite simple: he is the future."
I was reminded of a story about Ronald Reagan - Governor Reagan, specifically. In the late 1960s, he was on some campus, for a tense regents' meeting. As he tried to leave, a student mob surrounded his car. They chanted, "We are the future! We are the future!" Reagan retrieved a notepad from his briefcase, scribbled something, and held it up to the window: "I'll sell my bonds."
I feel certain that the talented Mr. Golijov can do better than "Ainadamar."
"Ainadamar" will be performed again tonight & January 26 at Rose Theater (212-258-9800). Lincoln Center's Osvaldo Golijov festival runs until February 22 under the auspices of the Great Performers series.
Correction from January 25, 2006:
"I feel certain that the talented Mr. Golijov can do better than ‘Ainadamar'" is how the last line of Jay Nordlinger's review of "Ainadamar" reads.The line was omitted on page 13 of yesterday's Sun.