Scottish Opera has boldly pushed artistic boundaries in an exciting partnership with Opera Ventures which has previously brought memorable performances of contemporary works such as Greek and Breaking the Waves to wider audiences. In Ainadamar, Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov explores the brief life of the revolutionary Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca told through the memories of his actress muse Margarita Xirgu. In a piece with movement and flamenco threaded through it, Scottish Opera invited the award-winning Brazilian physical dance legend Deborah Colker to direct, working with opera singers for the first time to bring grit and energy to this, the UK’s first staged production.

Lauren Fagan (Margarita Xirgu)
© James Glossop

Ainadamar means ‘fountain of tears’ and is one of the names for a spring high in the mountains above Granada where Lorca, too radical for the authoritarian regime, was executed by the fascist Falangists in the Spanish Civil War. Golijov’s opera, with an English libretto by David Henry Hwang translated into Spanish by the composer, is a series of flashbacks seen through the eyes of Xirgu. Lorca refused to leave Spain, but Xirgu fled in exile to Uruguay, her life's mission to keep Lorca’s passionate drama alive through her performances in the title role of Mariana Pineda, Lorca’s first success, originally costumed by Salvador Dalí. In this short one-act opera, Xirgu remembers going on stage, meeting Lorca in a bar for the first time, pleading in vain with him to leave Spain and finally seeing him in a vision as she dies. It is a sad and rather too fragmented plot but telling it through the passion of ‘cante jondo’ and ‘duende’ (the emotion and anxiety of Andalusian flamenco dance) brings the series of vignettes to vivid life.

Dancer Aitor Hernandez in Ainadamar
© James Glossop

Golijov’s music ranges from pulsing flamenco rhythms to a relaxed Cuban rumba, conjuring dreamy passages in between with unusual orchestral colours and electronic samples, including Mexican children praying to the Virgin Mary. A recurring plaintive ballad and lush music of ritual consecration add to the mix. Conductor Stuart Stratford kept movement and momentum sustained, a character in itself providing much beauty for the singers to embellish. Designer Jon Bausor produced a huge circular curtain of translucent fibres, a marvellously effective three dimensional canvas for Paul Keogan’s restless lighting and Tal Rosner’s haunting video creations. Ghostly white bulls come and go, but the stark circular projections of fascist slogans in a brutal font, accompanied by shouted orders, bring the shocking reality of the Civil War home. Small benches are ingeniously crafted into a bar, barricades, a scaffold and, memorably, a staging for Xirgu as she approaches death, propped upright time and again by the chorus as she falters.

Samantha Hankey (Federico García Lorca) and Lauren Fagan (Margarita Xirgu)
© James Glossop

Heading a trio of strong principals, Lauren Fagan was a wonderfully spirited Margarita Xirgu, her powerful soprano cutting through the music and dance, brave and determined to ensure Lorca’s legacy. American mezzo Samantha Hankey gave a dramatic performance and shone across her wide vocal range in the trouser role of Lorca, and Colombian soprano Julieth Lozano as Nuria, Xirgu’s student, was lighter voiced but blended delightfully in the trio. Alfredo Tejada, the renowned flamenco singer who has sung the part of Ruiz Alonso around the world, was a lively but suitably grim star turn. Adding energetic authenticity to the bar scene on stage were cajón player Stuart Semple and guitarist Ian Watt.

Lighting the production’s touch paper, Colker and flamenco choreographer Antonio Najarro conjure passionate set pieces with noisy unison stamping and palmas ’contra tiempo’ clapping. Striking forests of hands and fingers bristled from her four core dancers and dozen ensemble singers – everyone moves for Colker. The stunning set pieces were impressive, but it was the extraordinary moments around Lorca’s assassination that lingered, going to his death like the scene at Golgotha, the central figure in a triple execution, a bullfighter on one side and a teacher on the other, the lighting throwing up strange crucifix shapes as the laid-out bodies slowly circulated on platforms.

Lauren Fagan (Margarita Xirgu) and Julieth Lozano (Nuria)
© James Glossop

In the recent film Parallel Mothers by Pedro Almodóvar, the story bookending the film centres on the location and identification of those assassinated in the Civil War, a bleak task only begun comparatively recently. The film touchingly demonstrates the importance to local communities who are able to put their loved ones to rest at last. Margarita’s remains were repatriated from Uruguay to Catalonia in 1988. Lorca’s have never been found.

At an exciting first night in Glasgow of this co-production (with Welsh National Opera, Detroit Opera and The Metropolitan Opera), it was delightful to see Golijov taking his curtain call, clearly elated.