Review: Ainadamar (Theatre Royal Glasgow)
Updated: Jul 28
The thunderous flamenco distracts from the lack of depth
Photo Credit: James Glossop
Ainadamar, by Osvaldo Golijov, opens with a flamenco dancer leaping onto a platform and pounding his heels rhythmically into the floor. Even though he is only there to set the scene, he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. The story that unfolds with similar Spanish flair is the tragedy of Federico Garcia Lorca, played by Samantha Hankey, a poet and playwright who was assassinated for his liberal beliefs and homosexuality during the Spanish civil war. It is told through the eyes of his leading lady and muse Margarita Xirgu, played by Lauren Fagan, whose efforts to persuade Lorca to flee with her to Cuba were not enough to save him from his untimely death. In many ways, this is more her story than his.
In any case, Fagan sells it like it is. Her character appears agonised and her singing appears effortless. Watching her is like watching a sorcerous summon a voice from another realm. She has no difficulty in performing a character who is an actress, whose emotions must seem both real and exaggerated at the same time. By contrast, even though her singing is faultless, Hankey’s performance as Lorca never develops past the stage of representing him to get to the point of embodying him. She performs well enough to walk in his shoes, but her performance cannot support the weight of her character’s poetic lines.
But really, most audiences will find themselves too in awe with the music and the staging to take much notice. In Jon Bausor’s design, an enormous ring of tassels that stretch from floor to ceiling dominates the stage. On it, animations of teardrops, translations of fascist radio broadcasts, and the shadow of a menacing bull are projected at different moments of the performance. As the tassels are parted, and the platforms and poles are rearranged on stage, the characters can go from being trapped to being exposed, from being surrounded by splendour to being engulfed in ruin. Like the performance as a whole, it contains a multitude of meanings but puts dramatic elegance at the forefront.
Photo Credit: James Glossop
But maybe those priorities are out of order. Accusing the performance of being style-over-substance would be untrue; the issue is not that it is more focused on aesthetics than themes, the issue is that it romanticises its themes to aid its aesthetic. It is quite happy to spout poetic agony about revolution and war, but won’t get the dirt under its fingernails to depict it. Crying for freedom isn’t enough without seeing what it is the characters are trying to break free from. Since the audience can’t internalise the horrors of this war the performance ends up feeling shallow, despite how grand it is. Perhaps it is asking too much of opera to show the grit of civil war, but the lasting impression that Ainadamar leaves is that the revolution only serves as a vibrant, almost sexual backdrop to the character’s melodrama.
But if you watch Ainadamar, not as an opera about war, revolution, and loss, but as an opera about the art of war, revolution, and loss, it suddenly blossoms with ways to read and appreciate it. It is, after all, about a poet, and about the power of literature and theatre to unite citizens and topple tyrants. That may be self-indulgent, but it makes for a rich theatrical experience and nowhere is that more true than in the portrayal of Margarita’s death. Even as she is dying, she takes to the stage to play her rebellious character Mariana Pineda one last time and declares “I am Freedom” as a circle of red tassels descend to signify her death. At first, her martyrdom sounds self-congratulatory, even egotistical, but then you are reminded Margarita is an actress, and this is her character, all of which is actually being played by Fagan. It creates layer upon layer of imitation and role-playing, and so it always hovers above the surface of the ideas and emotions on display. It may not do justice to the hardships of the Spanish civil war, but its real dedication is to the art that that war and many others have generated. For some, this will be insubstantial, but there is no denying that the final product is a wonder to behold. Three stars.
Ainadamar will run at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from the 10th to the 12th of November