New opera brings magical dreams of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to colorful life

United StatesUnited States Gabriela Lena Frank, El último sueño de Frida y Diego: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Roberto Kalb (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 13.6.2023. (HS)

Yaritza Véliz (Catrina), Daniela Mack (Frida Kahlo) and Alfredo Daza (Diego Rivera) © Cory Weaver

Libretto – Nilo Cruz
Director – Lorena Maza
Sets – Jorge Ballina
Costumes – Eloise Kazan
Lighting – Victor Zapatero
Choreographer – Colm Seery

Frida Kahlo – Daniela Mack
Diego Rivera – Alfredo Daza
Catrina – Yaritza Véliz
Leonardo – Jake Ingbar

The pathbreaking painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera defined how art can reflect Mexican culture visually. Frida overcame her isolation and unimaginable pain from a trolley accident to produce indelible images of herself that also celebrated Mexican character. Diego portrayed Mexican culture in murals, all the while railing against capitalism and racism. They also had a stormy marriage, rife with extramarital affairs and complicated feelings.

A San Francisco Opera co-commission, El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The last dream of Frida and Diego) burst onto the company’s main stage Tuesday. Rather than try to tell their life stories, the two-hour and fifteen-minute opera harnesses the vivid colors and exotic elements of Mexico’s Dîa de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) culture to examine what Frida and Diego meant to each other.

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Niko Cruz came up with a sort of inverted version of the Orpheus myth that led to so many great operas. It made a dazzling, absorbing, thoughtful capstone to the company’s hundredth-anniversary season. John Adams’s fresh, new Antony and Cleopatra last September got things started with a bang, and 2022-23 has gone from strength to strength, perhaps the company’s best and most consistent season ever.

For the music, Frank wove Latin-American elements into a score that painted in sound the balance between the protagonists’ Mexican culture and internationally recognized art. The sound of a marimba harmonizing, the rhythms of a range of percussion and the colors of harmonies associated with Mexican music underlie vocal lines that merge naturally with the Cuban-born librettist Cruz’s words.

One recurring musical gesture, a sustained high-lying melodic figure, seemed to be associated with death. Celesta and violin play it in parallel, but a half-step apart to create a quiet dissonance. The score teems with color, seldom strident, always intent on completing the emotional picture of the moment. As big and triumphant as Act I’s end was, the opera finished on a quiet, wistful note. Mexican conductor Roberto Kalb, currently music director of Detroit Opera, shaped and paced everything immaculately, with nicely responsive playing from the orchestra.

The story line begins three years after Frida’s death with Diego and neighbors at the cemetery on the eve of Día de los Muertos. La Catrina, the keeper of the dead, hears Diego’s wish to see Frida one more time and, back in the underworld, she urges Frida to appear to him, as custom allows. She is reluctant to relive the pain she suffered for years, but another art-loving soul – Leonardo, an actor who wants to be Greta Garbo – convinces Frida to take the opportunity, not so much to reunite with Diego but to make art again. Frida appears to Diego in a dream, and a frustrated, exhausted Diego decides he wants to die so he can remain with Frida.

The four principals distinguished themselves with gorgeous singing. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack spanned the score’s wide vocal range with ease, and portrayed Frida with moment-to-moment subtlety. Alfredo Daza, born in Puebla, Mexico, deployed a steady baritone as Diego, conveying the character’s grief and regret. (Daza had sung Diego last year in San Diego.) They are also products of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, Mack in 2007-2009, Daza in 1997.)

As La Catrina, Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz nearly stole the show. She created a commanding figure in her mask and form-fitting black-and-brown costume, and managed the coloratura demands of her vocal line with pizzazz. (She is singing Mimì in La bohème at Glyndebourne and Alice Ford in Falstaff at Berlin’s Komische Oper.) Countertenor Jake Ingbar, a regular with Dutch National Opera, lent a louche aspect to Leonardo, dressed in deep red with Garbo’s signature turban hat.

Chorus members filled a long list of comprimario roles, and a big chorus portrayed both real life Mexicans and dream souls in the underworld, singing with gusto throughout.

‘Live’ images of Frida Kahlo’s paintings in a climactic scene from El último sueño de Frida y Diego © Cory Weaver

It all played out in a series of big set pieces, delineated by a gigantic frame that encompassed most of the proscenium. Act I’s cemetery glistened with levels of memorial candles that rose to create a roof-like umbrella for the climactic moment when Frida accedes to go back for one day. Act II included a theatrical coup, smaller frames dropping down to set off three of Frida’s famous self-portraits, posed for live.

Credit the Mexico City-based production staff, who also did the San Diego premiere last year, for getting the most out of the visual and dramatic elements. Director Lorena Maza made everything feel natural, despite the supernatural aspects of the story. Jorge Ballina’s set designs and Victor Zapatero’s lighting caught the eye without losing the thread of the story, and costume designer Eloise Kazan made everything look right, using colors wisely and vividly.

One reason for co-commissioning this work was to reach out to the Bay Area’s vibrant Latin-American community. To that end, activities in the courtyard between the opera house and Veterans Building before each performance included rituals, dancing and tamales to set the tone. Even the projected titles joined in, English translations above the stage and Spanish on two side screens.

Partners in commissioning the opera were San Diego Opera (which shared the production), Fort Worth Opera and DePauw University School of Music, with support from the University of Texas at Austin College of Fine Arts. Los Angeles Opera has it on the schedule for next season, with New York’s Metropolitan Opera to follow.

Harvey Steiman

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