If certain operatic works augur the vibrancy, the relevancy, the very potential of 21st century opera, Opera Phila’s mainstage production of Ainadamar is surely a work of portent.

The story is unrelentingly sad. It recounts the execution of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca for his progressive ideals told in flashbacks through his muse, Margarita Xirgu. Yet the work is thrilling and hopeful, if only for the glimpse it affords into the landscape of opera’s future, one that can include world music, indigenous and ethnic instruments, singers trained in non-classical disciplines, modern and folk dance, non-literal storytelling, technology, and lush melody over grating dissonance.

Ainadamar, which means “Fountain of Tears," premiered in 2003 and has been performed about 100 times since, according to the program notes, a frequency which pales in comparison to the popularity of many classic operas. So, why hasn’t it been performed more robustly? Like its brilliant composer, Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov, the work is not readily categorized. “This is more dance than opera,” an audience member lamented leaving the Opera Phila production. We all know there are plenty of operas that are more opera than anything else and, if we're being honest, we're occasionally bored silly by them. Sometimes it requires a different sort of work like this one to cut through the clutter and touch the hardened hearts of seasoned operagoers. This has the potential to be one such work.

Fundamentally, Ainadamar is a showcase for Golijov rather than the artists performing it. Even the orchestra must subordinate itself to Golijov’s originality and musical genius. The stage performers are used more as instruments as well, which is both refreshing and, for some operagoers, a tad unsettling, especially if one is more with familiar seeing opera singers inhabiting classic starring roles.

It was a sensation-rich production, full of sounds, both musical and natural, projected images that morph and change, and beguiling devices like statues that aren’t statues at all but living, breathing artists. Rapt attention is required to take in all of the sensory elements occurring simultaneously while also processing the content of the supertitles. This kind of sensory overload can’t be what many audience members expected and, frankly, may have hoped for in a mainstage production presented at the grand old dame of Philadelphia venues, the Academy of Music.

At 80 minutes running time (and no intermission), that Ainadamar was presented as part of Opera Phila’s mainstage lineup was a questionable decision. Make no mistake, the production values were spectacular, as strong if not stronger than anything I’ve seen at the Academy of Music in recent memory. Since it received a solid ovation but no standing ovation at curtain call, that might have been the audience’s uncalculated response to a super short mainstage production that demanded more mental processing than a four-hour opus by Strauss.

Just the same, Ainadamar has carved a place for itself and, more importantly, the works to follow in the realm of contemporary opera. It illuminates wholesale injustice without devolving into a jaded portrait of societal decay like Anna Nicole, for example. It's much more melodic and also more powerful than Powder Her Face, performed by this same company last season. 

Amidst the backdrop of other world events occurring in 1936, the execution of one Spanish poet might not loom as large in the context of history as the Great Depression. Yet this opera proves as compelling and cautionary a tale today as any incidence of government oppression, which is unrelenting and universal. Golijov succeeds in allowing the audience to experience any persecution of an innocent anew with this work.

This type of work is not the only direction that contemporary opera can take but, moving forward, it is surely a vital one in the development of the art form.

Enough can’t be said for the creative team who created a seamless, multi-sensory whole from many, many disparate parts. Director Luis de Tavira, set and lighting designer Philippe Amand, choreographer Stella Arauzo, projection designer Julian de Tavira, and costume designers Tolita and María Figueroa all worked in sync to match the power and beauty of the score with an equally impressive stage interpretation. Conductor Corrado Rovaris coaxed some stunning and unique sounds from the orchestra, blending perfectly with the projected images as they unfolded. He also supported the troupe of Flamenco dancers from the Compañia Antonio Gades, who were the lifeblood of this opera, punctuating the drama, serving as a Greek chorus, while allowing the audience to be transported to another culture oceans and thousands of miles away.

All the performers were solid and capable. Soprano María Hinojosa Montenegro, as Lorca’s muse Margarita Xirgu, was vocally and visually a dream. Flamenco cantaor Alfredo Tejada was breathtaking as Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the man who executed Lorca. The trio of female voices - Montenegro, Marina Pardo, and Sarah Shafer late in the production when Margarita is dying - was absolutely luminescent.

Bravo to Opera Phila for lifting what might have been a complacent house out of its winter doldrums with a startlingly beautiful contemporary operatic work. They also deserve credit for envisioning a grander stage and heightened visibility for this contemporary chamber opera that may prove vital in the evolving landscape of 21st century opera.