The life of Cuba after the Revolution of 1959 has been the subject of endless amounts of prose and heated arguments, but it also makes a good subject for an opera.
In May 2010, the Cuban-American composer Jorge Martín saw his opera on this subject, Before Night Falls, take the stage for the first time at the Fort Worth Opera in Texas. On Saturday night, he was on hand again to see the first of five Florida Grand Opera performances at Miami’s Ziff Ballet Opera House.
This work is based on the memoirs of Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), a Cuban poet and teenage enthusiast for Castro’s revolution who became disillusioned, was imprisoned for his dissidence and his homosexuality, and escaped during the Mariel boatlift of 1980 to the United States. He died 10 years later in New York as a suicide while in the final stages of AIDS.
Martín’s opera is a two-act work with a long first act whose libretto was written by Martín and Delores M. Koch, who translated Arenas’s memoir, titled Before Night Falls, from Spanish into English. It is a somewhat unsatisfactory libretto in that it tends to stop the action dead for musings by Arenas that the librettists apparently believed were crucial to understanding Arenas’s cast of mind. But they could have made these points more concisely, or at different parts of the story, so that the drama would have a more compelling arc and not lose its forward motion.
Musically, Before Night Falls is a strong score in its brilliant orchestration, its bigness at points of high drama (Martín is not afraid to make epic gestures) and its often subtle Cuban coloring, touching on popular music styles and weaving them in and out of the story. There are also prominent influences from other composers: Shostakovich in the martial music of the first act, and in the closing pages, Richard Strauss. And much of the orchestral narrative is reminiscent of modernist film composers such as Bernard Herrmann.
All of this is brought together with great skill and powerful impact. But Before Night Falls also lacks a distinctive compositional profile. The bulk of the vocal writing is composed in an anonymous declamatory style, with the sudden and somewhat puzzling mid-19th-century-like exception of a slow habanera for the parting of Arenas and his friend Lázaro, and in the choral writing, which was overall the most effective sung music in the opera.
Still, Before Night Falls is a compelling and worthwhile piece of musical theater. Its theme is that of the artist as witness and ultimate victor over the forces of repression, a theme that now has greater resonance for Americans, and a theme that provides much-needed uplift after the despair of most of the opera. It is an interesting story of a creator trying to create under difficult circumstances, and a poignant reminder not only of Cuba’s life under dictatorship but of the impact of AIDS on the gay community.
It falls short dramatically in that its libretto is draggy and sometimes awkwardly written, and its emphasis on Arenas’s unhappiness turns him into an unsympathetic whiner by the middle of Act II. We see none of his pre-AIDS involvement in his new life in the United States and hear about none of his work, and that makes him too one-dimensional. Arenas wrote a lot before his early death at 47, but you wouldn’t get that impression from this libretto.
Martín also misses some musical opportunities to make more of some things than he did: The short trio “Oh, our unhappy island” surely could have been a longer set piece, and the opening crowd scene of the second act, which gets the opera off again with a jolt of much-needed vigor, is too short, and all the energy it generated is flattened by a swift transition to a slow, mopey aria from Arenas that is not particularly distinctive.
The story takes us from Arenas’s youth in a small rural village where the boy, known as Rey, lives with his mother and a dozen old maid aunts who disapprove of men in general and of Rey in particular for his emerging homosexuality. After a brief stint with the rebels in the mountains, where he sees a man dragged in and shot to death in front of his horrified, pleading mother, Arenas goes to Havana, where he becomes part of a dissident writers and readers circle.
Betrayed by a lover and arrested on the beach by the police, he is tortured by Victor, a rebel commander who was once his ally, and forced into signing a confession in which he repudiates his writing — his work has become famous after being smuggled out of Cuba and published in France — and his sexual orientation. Bereft, he is befriended by a homeless man named Lázaro, who makes a point of telling Arenas he’s not gay, but who moves in with him and encourages him to think about escaping.
After a ruse at the Mariel port allows him to flee Cuba, he ends in up in New York, where he reunites with Lázaro. Seven years later, he learns he’s got the “mysterious gay disease,” and pleads with his Muses (the Moon and the Sea, who appear throughout the opera) for three years of life to finish his memoir.
In the final scene, mortally ill, Lázaro gives him poison, which he willingly drinks, leading to a short apotheosis in which Lázaro and the Muses scatter Arenas’s ashes as they assure the spirit of the now-dead writer that his work will live on even though he has gone.
Florida Grand Opera’s production is the Fort Worth Opera production in terms of sets and projection design (very important here); it also is directed by the original stage director, David Gately. Riccardo Hernandez’s set design is highly stylized, with no real sets to speak of; interior spaces are suggested and emphasized by projection designer Peter Negrini.
Those projections include Havana and New York cityscapes and references to the July 26 national holiday, plus the single most striking one, that of Ovidio confessing to thought crimes while in custody and naming names, including that of Arenas. The head of Ovidio then fades away, to be replaced by that of Che Guevara.
Gately’s direction is smart and capable, particularly in the New Year’s Eve scene in 1986 New York, when Arenas tells Lázaro he’s been diagnosed with AIDS; he shifts back and forth between revelers inside and a table where the two men are, and it works well. But an early scene featuring the old maid aunts rebuking Arenas for his erotic play with his friends unnecessarily gives each of the women a broom to hit Arenas with, so that at the peak of their upbraiding, as they are yelling and pushing at him with brooms, Arenas looks like a human curling stone. This bit of dramatic business would work better with only a couple brooms, and the other women doing something else to make their point.
This production is distinguished by its strong cast. The Canadian baritone Elliot Madore was Arenas, and he was marvelous. His resonant, forceful voice is well-suited for the often-angular vocal writing here because it has so much color throughout his registers; that made each phrase sound pointed rather than random. His acting was good, too, especially because he is required to be essentially in one mood – despairing and depressed – for most of the second act. But this was a splendid lead performance, and he well deserved his curtain call ovations from the large Saturday night house.
Supporting players were no less excellent. American tenor Michael Kuhn, as Lázaro, had a voice whose intensity and passion compensates for its relatively narrow compass. He sings beautifully, with warmth and suavity. The young American bass-baritone Calvin Griffin, as Arenas’s nemesis Victor, also turned in a terrific performance. He has a big, commanding instrument that he can use with real menace. He was at all times the rigid ideologue and unchecked power glutton, except for one moment of tenderness as he talked about the beauty of Arenas’s writing before burning the writer’s latest manuscript, stolen from his apartment, in front of him.
The American tenor Dinyar Vania was Ovidio, his writing mentor and underground literature leader (he’s based on a couple prominent Cuban writers of the time, including Jose Lezama Lima). Vania has a relatively dark, warm tenor that communicates well. Javier Abreu, a Puerto Rican tenor who made a wonderful Ernesto in last season’s Don Pasquale, here reprised the role of Pepe, which he created for the original Fort Worth production. He has an agile, muscular tenor that is most effective, and he was quite believable as a turncoat who can’t understand why bygones can’t be bygones.
The Muses were sung by the American mezzo Melissa Fajardo (as the Sea) and the Cuban-American soprano Elizabeth Caballero, a house favorite, as the Moon, and also as Arenas’s mother in Act I. Caballero, a Marielita who grew up in Miami, retains the large, strong voice she demonstrated as Magda in FGO’s 2012 mounting of Puccini’s La Rondine. Fajardo’s voice was less commanding, but it has an attractive darker quality that turned out to blend well with Caballero’s.
Katherine Kozak’s chorus sang with power and majesty, particularly in the opening scene of Act II, which recounts in choral form the beginning of the Mariel saga with the crowds that gathered in the Peruvian Embassy, and later in that act in the scene at the port of Mariel, when they sing a hymn to their new lives away from Cuba.
They also were central to perhaps the finest music in the score, an ensemble accompanying a vision of Ovidio’s funeral that includes a choral Dies Irae, interjections from the Moon and the Sun, and Arenas’s vow to honor Ovidio’s memory with his art.
Six male dancers, who appeared in two scenes, added a touch of classical ballet to the proceedings with elegant jetés designed by choreographer Yanis Pikieris.
The proceedings were led by Christopher Allen, resident conductor at Cincinnati Opera, who was making his FGO debut. He got excellent results from his orchestra, which played this demanding score brilliantly, and expertly handled the trickier spots in the action (such as the New Year’s Eve scene, with a chorus interrupting Arenas’s pleading with his Muses), keeping the orchestra well out of the way of his singers.
Florida Grand Opera is now in its fourth full year of productions under Susan Danis, and she is continuing to remake her company into one that is culturally relevant rather than simply an aural museum. Like Mourning Becomes Electra in 2013 and The Passenger in 2016, Before Night Falls would have been literally unheard of at the old FGO. None of these scores is likely to become permanent repertory, but that doesn’t really matter. Danis is leaving one slot open each season to program for the culture we’re in now, not to illustrate the canon, and in so doing, has helped show how much life is in this old art form.
Before Night Falls can be seen at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami. Call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org for tickets.