Golijov/Upshaw/CBSO, Barbican, London
Thursday 17 April 2008
Nobody divides the critics like the Argentine-Russian-Romanian-Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov; no other classical composer so forcefully unites audiences. This is partly due to the white-hot passion with which he writes, and partly to the fact that his "classicism" embraces everything from ouds and pan-pipes to lap-tops and electronica, and that his vocal palette celebrates folk-song at its rawest and most visceral.
But there's one classical voice which he also celebrates – soprano Dawn Upshaw, who has been the muse behind several of his works. And she's the muse behind his extraordinary "opera in three images", Ainadamar: having recorded an excellent version of this for Deutsche Grammophon, she has now led the same cast for its British premiere.
In this work, which centres on the death of Federico Garcia Lorca, Upshaw plays Lorca's muse the actress Margarita Xirgu, who recalls his play Mariana Pineda, the story of a revolutionary's judicial murder in which he symbolically prefigured his own. Ainadamar is the Arabic for "fountain of tears", and is the name of the well near Granada where, at the hands of homophobic fascist thugs, Lorca met his obscure end.
The music which Lorca loved best was "cante jondo", flamenco's "deep song"; by having Lorca's murderer sing the most beautiful "cante jondo", Golijov fruitfully upsets our expectations, as he does by casting a mezzo as Lorca.
With its vast sonic canvas and multi-layered electronic effects, that recording sets a challenge for live performances. Here Golijov's sound-world – in which hoof-beats and gunshots morph into flamenco tattoos – turned the auditorium into a mysterious and menacing space.
In mezzo Kelley O'Connor as Lorca, Upshaw had her perfect vocal foil; no praise can be too high for Jesus Montoya as the fascist villain, or for the solo guitarists, or for the Atlanta Chamber Chorus, or for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Robert Spano's baton. As the guard encourages Lorca to say his prayers, flanked by the bullfighter and teacher, the penny drops: this isn't an opera, nor even a cantata – it's a Passion tailor-made for our time.
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