United States Gabriela Lena Frank, El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / Lina González-Granados (conductor). Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 26.11.2023. (JRo)
Libretto – Nilo Cruz
Director – Lorena Maza
Sets – Jorge Ballina
Costumes – Eloise Kazan
Lighting – Victor Zapatero
Choreography – Ruby Tagle Willingham
Chorus director – Jeremy Frank
Frida Kahlo – Daniela Mack
Diego Rivera – Alfredo Daza
Catrina – Ana María Martínez
Leonardo – Key’mon Murrah
First Villager – Ryan Wolfe
Second Villager – Anthony León
Third Villager – Alan Williams
First Frida – Abi Levis
Second Frida – Madeleine Lyon
Third Frida – Sarah Saturnino
Young Man – Anthony León
Frida Kahlo narrated her difficult life through her autobiographical paintings, from her catastrophic bus accident to her tragic miscarriage to the pain of a life with her philandering husband, the famed muralist Diego Rivera. It is a narrative replete with captivating images and, as such, is eminently transferrable to the stage. In July of this year, Dutch National Ballet brought Kahlo’s paintings to vivid life in the ballet Frida (review click here), and now LA Opera has mounted El último sueño de Frida y Diego, which originated with San Diego Opera last year.
Avoiding the biopic pitfalls, composer Gabriela Lena Frank and her longtime collaborator, librettist Nilo Cruz, have set the opera during the Day of the Dead, imagining a reunion between the deceased Frida and her living husband. This gives a mythological cast – an inverse Orpheus and Eurydice tale – to the love story of Frida and Diego. Reluctantly Frida returns to Diego, who is pining for her during the Day of the Dead celebrations. The ‘rules’ administered by Catrina, the Keeper of the Dead, forbid Frida to touch Diego or she will risk the memory of a lifetime of physical pain. Longing for her, Diego begs his dead wife to embrace him. In a scene fraught with melancholy, Frida relents and they cling to each other. Pain follows, not only for Frida but ultimately for the unhappy Diego who is nearing the end of his life. In due course, he follows his wife into the underworld, and they are reunited in death.
Playwright Nilo Cruz is a fitting narrator for the life of a painter of intimate self-portraits – apparent in his tribute to Federico García Lorca in The Five Moons of Lorca, also composed by Frank (review click here). His lyrical language captures the poetry of Frida’s complex and vibrant world. In the underworld, Frida sings, ‘I erase my footprints in life with oblivion’. Returning to her blue house in Act II, she sighs, ‘I followed the murmur of the colors’.
In an otherwise eloquent libretto, there is one bewildering element: the introduction of a character called Leonardo. Leonardo is a dead actor who wants to return as Greta Garbo during the Day of the Dead to surprise a Garbo fan who is longing to meet her. Since Garbo is not yet dead, this is a perplexing notion. His function is to entice Frida back to the land of the living, but it feels like he belongs in another story, and his presence adds confusion to an otherwise cohesive narrative.
At times, the score referenced twentieth-century European music with echoes of Benjamin Britten. Since both Kahlo and Rivera were of European descent – Kahlo’s father was a German Jew, Rivera’s mother was a Spanish Converso – this made perfect sense. In fact, Frank’s own background reflects this amalgam of cultures. The second act, set mainly in Frida and Diego’s blue house, evoked Britten’s score for Billy Budd, in particular Billy’s tender aria, ‘Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray’. It was the percussion section (Gregory Goodall and Theresa Dimond) which added hints of Mexican influence. In addition, the imaginative music for the chorus carried its own Mexican flavor with glimmers of animal sounds – the barking of dogs, the chirping of crickets, the clucking of hens. The LAO Chorus was at its finest under the direction of Jeremy Frank.
Conductor Lina González-Granados led the LAO Orchestra, drawing out both the highly textured dissonances of the music and the lyricism in the strings. The weaving of orchestral colors felt like an embroidered dress worn by Kahlo herself.
As Frida, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack had an earthiness of both voice and manner that gave weight to the artist’s tormented soul. Alfredo Daza as Diego sang in a voice ripe with plaintive coloring. Ana María Martínez was a brilliant Catrina, in turn demonic or whimsical – her florid cackling brought to mind the Queen of the Night’s famous aria from The Magic Flute. Key’mon Murrah’s Leonardo cut a striking figure, his buttery countertenor displaying an alluring lyricism.
Costumes by Eloise Kazan referred to Kahlo’s paintings, whether the artist pictured herself dressed traditionally or in her various guises. The costumes had a heavier feel than Kahlo’s delicately honed paintings but felt just right for an opera seeking to turn the painter into a mythic creation. Jorge Ballina’s glowing sets, whether colored lush orange in Act I or a rich blue in the second, brought the Mexican landscape of Frida’s world to the stage. Picture frames surrounded the action – gold for Act I’s cemetery and underworld scenes, blue for Act II’s Casa Azul. Lighting by Victor Zapatero created a mellow glow that flattered the characters and sets.
Frank’s El último sueño de Frida y Diego is a rich experience of art, music and poetry and may have earned a place in the ever-expanding canon of contemporary opera.