But that's not fair: Golijov understands quite well what he's after. That just happens to be, instrumentation notwithstanding, the popular musical aesthetic. Composers have flirted with this before, of course, whether in a libretto or certain stylistic borrowings or whatnot. But such popular elements usually sit uneasily with the more classically high-cultural* parts of the whole. Not here: if Ainadamar was ever done unmiked, it was because the piece had not yet become truly what it is.
[*Not necessarily used to denote value, but, I think, an accurate description of the difference in vantage between the two aesthetics.]
It is no accident that popular music exploded in popularity with the advent of the microphone. Athletic and remarkably well-trained as any particular one may be, the live voice is a limitation: it (with its sibling, the physical stage presence of one body) ensures that characters in opera remain at a recognizably human scale even as they're kings or heroes -- or gods. This fits naturally with the aesthetic of high culture, which characteristically explores the (tragic or amusing) limitedness of individual man, his inability to throw off mortal bonds from even the highest point. (Even Wotan has such problems.) But popular art, which indulges such fantastic desires for the put-upon mass, is less happy in a natural breath. It's become immeasurably more effective as technology's let it scale to not one individual facing his destiny but to the mass audience itself, source and place of its intoxicating energy.
David Henry Hwang's libretto hits the familiar pop-story notes: oppression, freedom, the impermanence of death, oppression, revolution, the long-suffering "people", the glorious future to come, etc. The designated oppressor-figure is, of course, onstage for most of the action but gets not a single word (just menacing gestures with a rifle). After a seemingly-endless death scene, one main character promptly gets back up and sings himself into transcendence. The whole thing is -- like the script of, say, Braveheart -- fairly heady to one caught up by it and entirely ridiculous to one who's not. In either case, it's a purely populist confection.
Of Golijov's music, one bit seemed to call for actual classical performance (minus mikes and gain-riding) -- Lorca's invocation of Mariana Pineda at the first segment's end. The rest? The composer's note states his desire to make a reapproachement between "popular and serious":
Popular is serious on the continent where I was born and raised, where first acts of dictators when seizing power included cutting the fingers of popular guitarists, imprisoning singers, and sending songwriters into exile, among other acts of fear that were answered by some of the most tender and long-lasting music created in the last century.In that, he's been successful: Ainadamar is popular. It's also serious. But it's not opera.
(And I'd been hoping to hear one of my favorite bloggers in one of those...)
This isn't to say that an opera can't put electronic resources to a high-cultural end. The classic modernist use has been to expand the sonic palette with more alien, denatured tones. But that's very far away here -- for all talk of new emotion or experience, pretty much all one makes out is the roar of an incited crowd.