Isaac Tovar as Bullfighter Dancer. Pictures: Johan Persson


Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


You can forget any preconceived ideas you have about opera, whatever they are, they will be wrong. This is as much theatre as opera, spectacular, unashamedly Spanish with its rhythms and palmas and visually stunning.

It is also about something I suspect many people in the UK know little if anything about. I must admit that my knowledge of Spanish writers, by nationality rather than language, does not extend much beyond Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote.

The poet, playwright, writer and theatre director Federico García Lorca had never appeared on my literary radar. He was assassinated in 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, by the nationalist forces, the Falangists, and fascists with a certain General Franco in their number.

And that is the key to the opera. His death and keeping the memory alive. We open with a scene that can only set the heart of the opera in one place. If ever a dance and music expressed the passion and sprit of a nation then that is flamenco, born, like Lorca, in Andalusia.

It is stark, dramatic, with that arrogance of the bullfighter from Isaac Tovar, an internationally renowned flamenco dancer, choreographer and teacher. He is picked out on a raised platform by a hanging circle of spots, within what appears to a double walled curtain of chain mail, glittering in threads from the flies in Jon Bausor’s design. 

margarita and nunia

 Jaquelina Livieri as Margarita Xirgu and Julieth Lozano Rolong as Nuria

It allowed a similar technique to that seen the recent WNO five star production of Candide at The Alexandra Theatre, where the curtains create a translucent video screen on which were projected faces, waves, the fires of war, the fountain of tears of the title  and in another scene of Spanish dance, chromed hands.

The opera, rather like Lorca’s play, Mariana Pineda, is split roughly into three sections. In the first the actress Margarita Xirgu is preparing to go on stage sometime in the 1960s in Montevideo as Mariana, a part she has been playing for almost 40 years. Lorca had idolised Pineda, and had personally selected Mariana for the role.

Pineda was seen as a revolutionary and was found guilty of conspiracy and treason after a flag embroidered Equality, Freedom and Law was found in a search of her home. She was publicly executed by garrotte in Granada in 1831 at the aged of 26.

Sung by Argentinian soprano Jaquelina Livieri she tells her student, Nuria, sung by Columbian soprano Julieth Lozano Rolong, about Lorca and her first meeting with him in Madrid and we enter into flashbacks, taking us to the early days of civil war.

Lorca and his muse

Jaquelina Livieri as Margarita Xirgu and Hanna Hipp as Federico García Lorca 

There are already stirrings of unrest, as Ruiz Alonso, sung dramatically by celebrated flamenco singer Alfredo Tajeda, warns that any sign of revolution will be stamped on.

He is to appear again and again, a herald of the civil war to come, with a voice almost a call to prayer but here a stark warning of repression.

Phase two sees Lorca appear, or at least his ghost. Xirgu blames herself for her death as she could not persuade him to leave his beloved Spain and escape with her to Cuba. Lorca, cast in opera tradition as a trouser role, is sung by Polish mezzo-soprano, Hanah Hipp. He told Margarita he had to stay in Spain to witness and write about the suffering of its people, and thanked her for keeping his memory alive.

But liberal poets are not a welcome addition to the revolution and Lorca, described by the nationalists as a homosexual socialist, which doubled his chances of a limited lifespan, is one of a group rounded up by Alonso, found guilty, what a surprise, and died by firing squad.

There is a dramatic moment as a tube of blood red threads descend, from the flies and Nuria has her moment of anguish.

Which brings us to the final section and back to the present with Margarita, weakened, but determined to play Mariana once more, helped by her student Nuria. Actors only live on stage she tells her, but freedom lives forever.


Julieth Lozano Rolong as Nuria in a blood red cylinder within the circular wall of projected words and thoughts

Lorca’s vision arrives to thank her for keeping his memory alive on stage and in the hearts of her students. And this is opera remember, so obviously the heroine has to die, sorry Margarita . . .

The curtain becomes a cacophony of words, from Lorca’s poetry and works, flashing, big small, disjointed, there is more of the flamenco theme once more with stark lighting and we end with little more than desolation.

The set and lighting (Paul Jeogan) are breathtaking at times while the projections (Tal Rosner) are always telling and never intrusive, while the WNO orchestra, under conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren, played with real Latino flair.

The opera is about a Spanish hero, yet was commission by the Boston Symphony, opening in 2003 with music by Argentinian born Osvaldo Golijov, a composer of Romanian Jewish descent, and a libretto by American playwright and professor of screenwriting, David Henry Hwang. His English text being then translated into Spanish by Golijov. Ainadamar (Arabic for fountain of tears) then had its revised premiere with the Sante Fe Opera in 2005.

It is different, exciting, visually dramatic and gives another string to the bow of opera.

Roger Clarke


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