By Robert Croan
Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s 1991 opera, Frida – based on the life of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo – requires only 15 singers (some in double roles) and an orchestra of six to 11 players, but the brilliant, kinetic Florida Grand Opera production that opened last weekend in the Miramar Cultural Center, seemed huge.
The energy level soared from first note to last. The subject matter was serious and thought provoking but always entertaining and oddly optimistic. Thanks to librettists Hilary Belcher and Migdalia Cruz, director Marco Pelle (and of course, composer Rodriguez), the exuberance of a Broadway musical, the gravitas of grand opera and the intimacy of chamber drama co-existed in a fantasy world that just happened to be almost entirely factual. [Subsequent performances will also take place in small venues: Miami-Dade County Auditorium (March 21, 23, 24) and Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse (March 28, 30).]
The real Frida had a terrible yet wonderful life. Born in poverty, crippled at 18 as a result of a tram accident that left her in lifelong pain, she studied with iconic muralist Diego Rivera (whom she married twice) and became herself an artist of equal renown. She socialized with the notables of her time, from the Rockefellers to the Trotskys, had a series of male and female lovers (Leon Trotsky among them), and portrayed herself in her own works as a living Christian martyr.
The opera opens on a colorful, slightly eerie set designed by Moníka Essen, with changing projections and marvelous lighting effects by Nate Wheatly. Surreal plants, a giant eye, a contorted heart and bits of gruesome paintings are part of the backdrop for three masked cadavers (Laura León, Stephany Peña, Simon Dyer) who do a weird song and dance.
There’s a crowd, from which emerges the title character, in the magnetic, captivating persona of Catalina Cuervo, a Colombian performer who lists herself as a soprano but has a deep cante jondo belt voice that merges into a vibrant mezzo-soprano sound as she goes up the scale. She defies categories; she inhabits the role, taking focus whether she is singing or not. She is on stage almost the whole time (more than two-and-a-half hours, if you include intermission) and she’s riveting. With Sue Schaefer’s superb make-up and wigs, she looks pretty much like the real Frida in old photographs.
Ricardo Herrera, too, looks a lot like the Rivera of memory. He was a striking figure on stage. His sizable baritone has presence of itself, although his vocal technique is variable in the upper reaches.
The show – and it’s a show more than an opera – unfolds in a series of vignettes. Gruesome events unfold in stylized pantomime, though not much less painful for that. Rodriguez’s mesmerizing score takes us through a profusion of 20th- and 21st-century styles: from Puccini to Schoenberg, Sondheim to Stravinsky, jazz to rock with mariachi as underpinning to establish the Mexican ambience. There’s even a phrase from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at a point when someone makes an anti-Semitic slur.
Also, in antithesis to operatic tradition, is the use of body mikes to amplify the voices – in song and speech – a device that worked only intermittently well. Much of the spoken dialogue (the libretto mixes English with Spanish) was hard to decipher even with electronic aid, while the singing was distorted and uneven in volume in ensembles.
The first act is a fast-moving, cinematic sequence of expository scenes that bring Frida from childhood in Mexico to maturity in New York, culminating in the setbacks (Rockefeller’s rejection of Diego’s mural because of his depiction of Lenin, and Frida’s miscarriage of their child) which turn the couple back to their native country. Act 2 has the musical highlights, much credit going to conductor Roberto Kalb: engaging mariachi sounds that give way to operatic melodrama when Frida discovers Diego having sex with her sister Cristina (alluringly portrayed by creamy-toned soprano Jessica E. Jones).
A special musical highlight is a quintet in which Frida and Trotsky, Diego and Mrs. Trotsky each convey their emotions over love and infidelity, while Cristina, her voice soaring above the others, utters her remorse over having been disloyal to her sister. In the tradition of great opera ensembles, Rodriguez gives each character simultaneously a credible musical language of his or her own.
At the other end of the spectrum is a raunchy bathtub sex scene (I hardly noticed the music here), and a delightful vaudeville style duet between Diego and his potential buyer for Frida’s art, actor Edward G. Robinson (baritone Dyer, in a change of role from earlier on). FGO Studio Artists Domenick Corbacio, Benjamin Dickerson, Sean Galligan, Evan Kardon, Mariya Kaganskaya, Dylan Morrongiello and Zaray Rodriguez also deserve recognition for a multiplicity of essential supporting roles that were consistently effective and convincing.
Frida will be performed March 21, 23 and 24 at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; and March 28 and 30 at the Parker Playhouse, 707 N.E. 8th St., Fort Lauderdale. For tickets and more information, call 808-741-1010 or visit fgo.org.