No good guys in war

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By Alicia Solomon

This summer’s American premier at the Santa Fe Opera, “Adriana Mater,” by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, is “a woman’s story told by a woman, and . . . looks at war through a woman’s eyes.” It makes the case that in war, there are no good guys; all combatants are “thugs and murderers,” as demonstrated by Adriana’s rape, not by an enemy soldier but one from her own village. The conflict depicted is not between political entities, but between individual and even intimate human beings; and more so, between the good and evil, compassion and aggression within us all.

This is not an easy opera to watch or hear. Saariaho’s music is atonal, strongly dissonant, and haunting, very like the background tracks of the old “Twilight Zone” TV series. Some of Adriana’s, especially her opening aria, is eerily beautiful; but much of the rest is searingly violent, bereft of recognizable melody or harmony. Yet it undeniably evokes the agonizing chaos within and without, and I was drawn almost unwillingly into the story. When Adriana’s son Yonas grows up and learns the truth about his father through gossip, his rage initially falls on his mother and aunt, for lying to him all his life. “When should I have told you, when you were 4, 8, 12?” his mother asks.

He transfers his pain and hostility to the long absent father, recently returned to his family home, and vows to kill him in revenge. Upon confrontation, however, the son finds a blind, broken wretch, miserable and full of self-loathing, who deludes himself that he and Adriana might have been in love under different circumstances, and wishes he had died before the crime was ever committed. Yonas berates himself that he doesn’t have the “courage” to murder his father although really, he doesn’t have the heart. His mother’s abiding hope, clung to through the years, that he is her son, her blood, and not the monster’s, is ultimately, (albeit somewhat anti-climactically), vindicated.

As Adriana, Finnish mezzo Monica Groop is absolutely wonderful. Her rich, deep maroon voice and consummate musicality, makes the difficult music sing; and her compassionate characterization elicits both sympathy and admiration. English Wagnerian bass Matthew Best brings humanity to the “monster” Tsargo, not an easy task; first as an infatuated drunkard, then a soldier whose weapon and warfare have reduced him to a barbarian, and finally a shattered wreck of a human being, too pitiable to hate despite his vicious crime. A deliciously dark voice, huge, round, and still perfectly focused, again make the atonal dissonance sound almost natural and easier to listen to.

Quebecer Joseph Kaiser, playing Yonas, embodies the impetuous, quicksilver passion of youth, (ah, to be 17 and know “truth!”), which reverts as quickly to despairing self-condemnation and a child-like regression toward the comfort of mother’s embrace. His bright tenor never quite shines; to what degree this is the composition itself versus the singer’s incomplete mastery of it is unclear.

Certainly, the treble voices fare less well in this production; Finnish soprano Pia Freund as Adriana’s sister Refka is the weakest link in the quartet, her tone diffuse and sometimes thin. Also, she is the most guilty of the cardinal sin (in my perhaps old-fashioned opinion) of singing into the wings or even upstage. This may not have been her choice, but I don’t care how famous and fashionable the stage director is: No matter who your character is talking to, you should be singing to the audience!

In fact, Peter Sellar’s direction left me cold, full of meaningless movement and gestures which occluded rather than illuminated the text; Lebanese journalist Amin Maalouf’s poetic French libretto deserved better. A distracting, intermittent reverb betrayed stage miking, ridiculous in a house with such excellent acoustics.

Kazakhi scenic designer George Tsypin’s stark, colorless set consisted of adobe-looking walls, later ragged and decaying, with one low, off-center door; and three domes rising quasi-mosquelike from the roof. Changes in mood and time were defined by James Ingalls’ mysterious, expressive lighting. But the “unsung” hero of this production has to be Spanish conductor Ernest Martinez Izquierdo, whose shamelessly blatant direction of the heroic orchestra (which included an unseen, wordless chorus) and cast kept both music and momentum flowing through undistinguishable instrumentation, tempi, and cadence. Bravo! And bravi tutti for the successfully, effective accomplishment of a difficult new work.