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New, simply-staged 'Ainadamar' finds its soul

NEW YORK -- Osvaldo Golijov is a composer who works down to the wire, and the ink was hardly dry on the score of his first opera, ''Ainadamar" (''Fountain of Tears"), when it was premiered at Tanglewood in 2003.

The opera felt like a work in progress then, and Golijov set to work to add more notes -- and take out a few. A revised version, in a completely new staging by Peter Sellars, was widely admired in Santa Fe last summer, and Lincoln Center is presenting three performances of it in New York as part of a monthlong festival, ''The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov."

David Henry Hwang's libretto tells the story of the Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca as reflected in the memories of the actress Margarita Xirgu, for whom Lorca wrote some of his greatest female roles. Lorca was summarily executed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War; Xirgu remembers him during the last moments of her own life, which ended in 1969.

The one-act, 80-minute opera presents the principal events as a ritual enactment, like those in Lorca's plays, but without rooting it in the earth, as Lorca did. Hwang's work is skillful, but it does not shirk sentimentality, and it is a little odd to find the murder of Lorca upstaged by the prolonged love-death of his muse. Also the demands of the Lorca estate for permission to use the poet's own words were high, so there is rather too much ersatz Lorca.

Golijov's music, charged with Spanish rhythms and timbres, is hypnotically beautiful and lustrously orchestrated. The electronic waters of the opening are as primordial as Wagner's portrait of the Rhine; the percussive patterns of horsehooves, later echoed in gunshots, are terrifying. Golijov has omitted the role of the young Margarita, assigning her music to a new character; he's extended some scenes and added a dream sequence about Xirgu's fantasy of escape with Lorca to Cuba. An ''Havana" song evokes Kurt Weill, as do some other details, but without the mordancy, and a little more mordancy would help cut the prevailing sweetness.

Sellars's production, in a set by the Los Angeles painter Gronk inspired by Picasso's ''Guernica," marks a return to simplicity. There are no technical extravagances; much of the lighting comes from footlights that cast large shadows. The chorus gestures and flutters to and fro, as in a Greek tragedy.

Contralto Kelley O'Connor sings with haunting colorations as an androgynous Lorca, and Jessica Rivera pours out gleaming sound as Xirgu's student. Jesus Montoya is the haunting offstage flamenco singer (Golijov loves to mix up vocal styles the way he likes to merge very different kinds of music). As Margarita, Dawn Upshaw doesn't look Xirgu's age, but she's fearless and compelling, if not unselfconscious, in using all of her vocal and dramatic resources, and gives what may be the greatest performance of her career. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya leads with fire and authority, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's plays resplendently.

Golijov is a composer who seldom repeats himself. His Greatest Hit to date, ''La Pasion Segun San Marcos," works against type to turn the introspective form of the Passion into brilliant, extrovert music theater. ''Ainadamar," which followed, is mostly introspective, and turns opera into a form of almost-religious ritual and reflection.

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