Despite the extraordinary claims of US critics, the jury is still out on whether Osvaldo Golijov is a trail-blazer in classical music. What this performance and Deutsche Grammophon’s recording (available in the US and soon to be released in Europe) establish beyond doubt is that Golijov’s opera about the poet Federico García Lorca is his most outstanding work so far.

Ainadamar (“fountain of tears”) is not really an opera at all and Golijov has admitted it. This outdoor concert performance, acted with extraordinary intensity by Dawn Upshaw, Jessica Rovera and Kelley O’Connor, revealed it as a secular passion. The immediate focus is Lorca’s brutal death during the Spanish civil war, but the underlying theme is how people of common background have a habit of killing each other. It is as if Golijov’s experience of the “dirty war” in his native Argentina has given the work its spiritual backbone.

Simply structured and lasting just 80 minutes, Ainadamar casts a spell from start to finish. The secret lies partly in musical consistency – Golijov donning the clothes of falla and Spanish folk tradition – and partly in its seductive lyric perfume. There is no rasping eclecticism: just three exquisitely blended female voices (Lorca is sung by a contralto), a flamenco male voice, a female chorus and an orchestra flavoured by guitar solos.

The action is played out in the spirit of Bach: it is a drama of the imagination, intertwining snapshots of Lorca’s life with his friend Margarita Xirgu’s portrayal of the martyr Mariana Pineda in Lorca’s play. The way David Henry Hwang’s libretto dovetails these strands is seamless, and is capped by the sincerity and interconnectedness of Golijov’s score.

The conductor Robert Spano seized the freedoms offered by Golijov’s idiom. The Atlanta Symphony and its chorus relished the hypnotic rhythms. If I were controller of the BBC Proms or festival director in Edinburgh (or Berlin or Lucerne or Granada), I would sign up the entire package now. ★★★★★

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