Of what should I speak first -- music, images, ideas, emotion? "Ainadamar" is so full of these that it stretches a review to its limits.
Opera is supposed to do that, of course, hitting you with singers, orchestra, spectacle, acting and text, all at once. So does musical theater. But along with being through-composed and putting the music first, opera's real distinction is that it raises the ante, revs its engines and comes at you like a tidal wave, with no holds (or mixed metaphors) barred.
So if you think it odd that Quantum Theatre is producing "Ainadamar," Osvaldo Golijov's passionate 2003 opera about Federico Garcia Lorca and his legacy, there's no mystery at all: Artistic director Karla Boos has always preferred her theatrical emotions lavish and intense.
Simultaneously compact and huge, "Ainadamar" delivers all of this. I didn't know where to look -- at the glittering 21-piece orchestra led by Andres Cla- dera, the vivid and poetic video design by Joe Seamans, the surtitles translating the Spanish libretto (by David Henry Hwang, no less) or the expressive cast of seven women, often facing each other across an ocean of space.
That ocean is a long social hall deep within the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The audience fills several rows rising up along the two long sides -- very long. At one end, high on a stage, is the orchestra; at the other is a grand staircase beneath a soaring wall filled with moving images. Projecting out from both ends are runway stages, but that still leaves a large space in the middle, which serves as something like an ancient theater, a bull ring or a town square cleared for an execution.
An execution is at the heart of this story, but the opera is all about transcending tragedy. In a packed 70 minutes, divided into three acts which it calls "images," "Ainadamar" (the name of an ancient place near Granada where Lorca was killed in 1936 by Franco's fascists) alludes to three overlapping stories and three deaths.
First comes Mariana Pineda, a 19th century revolutionary martyr made famous by Lorca's 1925 play of that name (first performed with direction by Lorca and designs by Salvador Dali); then Lorca; then Lorca's friend, Margarita Xirgu, the actress who played Pineda and kept the revolutionary flame burning in forced exile until she died in Montevideo in 1969.
So "Ainadamar" is a play about the intersection of theater and history. It begins in Montevideo in 1969 (when Franco still ruled), as Margarita recalls the revolutionary past for the benefit of some young actors, especially her protege, Nuria. She takes us back to her time with Lorca, sharing his ideals, retelling his story, which is also that of Mariana.
As Margarita dies, she is reunited with Lorca while the legacy is passed on. Or something like that. The fact is, I would forget to read all the surtitles, because I couldn't tear my eyes away from the performers, except when I couldn't tear them away from the soaring images or from the expansive relationship among all these parts.
I hereby charge "Ainadamar" with theatrical excess -- not grandiose excess, but artistic intensity. In a sense, this is the opposite of grand opera: there's no crowd, no inundation, no over-the-top. Call it mini-opera, I guess, with "just" seven singers and an orchestra of 21.
But it is too rich to respond to completely on one visit. I'd return a second time just to focus on Mr. Seaman's video projections, such as the giant candles (metaphors for both inspirational life and fragile death) or the window curtains blowing in the wind. Some images simply show the performers' giant faces, surveying the scene below or (I get a chill remembering) looking out at us, in memory and challenge. I won't even mention the political implications in this, our political year.
On a revisit, I could also close my eyes to concentrate on Mr. Golijov's lush and complex music, which is really the reason for it all. I'm not the one to describe it in detail, just to say that it lifts and tosses you about, melodic and intricate, tragic and inspirational at the same time.
And I could fixate on the singers. The greatest emotional burden falls on Katy Williams (Margarita), but I was also swept up by the vocal artistry of Leah Edmondson Dyer (Nuria), especially her clarity and stillness. The most striking performance is by Raquel Winnica Young (Lorca), who manages to be impassive and passionate at the same time. Having Lorca played by a female mezzo gives him an appropriate distinction and otherworldly authority.
Carolina Loyola-Garcia adds the staccato punctuation of flamenco. Her Ruiz Alonso (Lorca's executioner) is punctuation of an astringent, dramatic kind. Meanwhile, I'd need a third or fourth eye for the surtitles, to savor Mr. Hwang's (and Lorca's) poetry of life and death.
Fitting all these pieces together falls to the director, Ms. Boos. It isn't easy in this large, diffuse space, which makes the sound and lighting design by Ryan McMasters and Scott Nelson especially important, to unite all these contributing elements. There are other contributing artists, as well -- mini-opera has never been so big.
Artists, we see, can speak for a whole culture, across the ages, with fervor and heart.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson is at 412-216-1944.