By John Fleming
MIAMI — Before Night Falls is an opera about freedom – sexual, political, and artistic freedom. Composer Jorge Martín was inspired by the charismatic gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (1943-90), whose posthumous memoir from which the opera takes its title is a devastating critique of the Castro revolution as well as a poetic reflection on the sadness of a life in exile.
Florida Grand Opera is now giving Martín’s thrilling but flawed work, premiered in 2010 by Fort Worth Opera, its second production. The opening performance was on March. 18 at the Adrienne Arsht Center. (Readers may be familiar with the 2000 film starring Javier Bardem based on the same book by Arenas.)
After a brief, lush prelude in the orchestra, the curtain rises on a New York walkup apartment where Arenas, known as Rey, is dying from AIDS and praying for the strength and time to complete his memoir – not a good sign for what is to come, dramaturgically speaking. Nothing is less operatic than a writer struggling to finish a work, but this unpromising scenario is the underpinning of Martín’s stubbornly earthbound libretto, which he wrote with Dolores M. Koch, who did the English translations of some of Arenas’ books. Their protagonist is constantly trying to hide his manuscripts from authorities in Cuba and smuggle them to publishers elsewhere, and while those details are part of the memoir, they bog down the narrative momentum of the opera.
Running three hours, including an intermission, Before Night Falls flashes rather confusingly backward and forward from Rey’s childhood of abject poverty in rural Cuba to his escaping the life of a peasant to join Castro’s rebels in the mountains, to the persecution he bravely resisted in Havana as a counter-revolutionary artist and homosexual, to the unhappy decade he spent in the United States. At the heart of the story is his harrowing time in El Morro prison.
Elliot Madore, the baritone who plays Rey, gave a marvelous marathon performance – rarely leaving the stage – but he was saddled with having to sing mostly about abstractions like freedom and beauty and hope. Noble sentiments, to be sure, but not very dramatic when returned to over and over, especially with Rey so often angry, a hard emotion to express in extended singing.
The opera’s depiction of the writer’s relationships lacks intimacy or nuance, and some of his most dynamic interactions come in scenes not with people but with his muses, the Moon (soprano Elizabeth Caballero) and the Sea (mezzo-soprano Melissa Fajardo), who constitute a sort of Greek chorus in fancy dresses. The two are introduced in the opening scene and pop up throughout the opera to provide richly engaging music.
Caballero also sang Rey’s mother with coloratura flourish, as she instilled a deep love for Cuba in her son. Having the Moon sing the mother differed from the Fort Worth Opera production and CD, which had the Sea doubling as the mother. It was a smart change because Caballero gave a brilliant performance. The FGO cast has one holdover from the original production, Javier Abreu, the bright-voiced tenor who is repeating his role as Pepe, Rey’s oldest friend and, ultimately, his betrayer.
Martín brought a strong sense of identification to the story of Arenas – the composer, too, is Cuban-born and gay (he lives in Vermont) – and the gorgeous music conveys hints of tropical rhythms and tunes deftly woven into the score.
Whenever everything comes together, Before Night Falls soars. There is a lovely Act II duet between Rey and his loyal friend Lázaro (Michael Kuhn) that blossoms into a sumptuous waltz. Many of the scenes with the Muses include celestial offstage choruses, and a victorious rebel chorus masterfully evokes Verdi, though with a heavy dose of irony (Katherine Kozak was chorus master). There’s even a touch of chirpy minimalism in the orchestration. Christopher Allen expertly conducted the 54 musicians in the pit.
Madore’s Rey has powerful scenes with the bearded Victor (the excellent Calvin Griffin, one of four members of FGO’s Young Artists Program cast in principal roles), a Castro figure in combat fatigues who does everything he can to break the dissident writer. During an interrogation he burns one of Rey’s manuscripts in a garbage can and has him thrown into prison, where he is put in solitary confinement, not for his defiance as an artist but because homosexuality is condemned by the revolution. As part of Victor’s vendetta against Rey, he turns fellow writers against him, such as his onetime mentor Ovidio (Dinyar Vania), likely modeled on poet Heberto Padilla, who was forced to make a public confession of crimes against the state and accused other writers of harboring similar ideas.
Arenas’ memoir is sexually graphic. He claimed to have had more than 5,000 sexual encounters, mostly pickups in places like the baths and beach changing rooms – but the opera doesn’t go there under director David Gately.
Men kissing is more or less suggested rather than actually seen. For sex, the staging features Yanis Pikieris’ choreography in a couple of mildly homoerotic dances for six men, dreamy gay idylls in the countryside and on a beach. Both scenes are violently broken up, one by Rey’s bitter, broom-wielding aunts, the other by cops with billy clubs.
Florida Grand Opera purchased the Fort Worth Opera production of Before Night Falls and has kept it much the same, with a simple set design by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Harry Frehner, projections by Peter Nigrini, and costumes by Claudia Stephens. Sung in English, it has supertitles in both English and Spanish. It’s terrific to see such a provocative, beautifully crafted work get new life when so many others make splashy debuts and then vanish. Kudos to FGO for reviving it as part of its “Made for Miami” series, which included Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger in 2016 and will present Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas next season.
As ground zero for the Cuban diaspora and home to a large gay community, Miami is certainly fertile ground for Martín’s opera, though the house was not full on opening night. It must be noted that Arenas, who lived in Miami for a while, was not a fan of the city, which he described in his memoir as “a caricature of Cuba, the worst of Cuba,” adding that he “hated the flatness of the scenery, which could not compare with the beauty of an island; it was like the ghost of our Island, a barren and pestiferous peninsula, trying to become, for a million exiles, the dream of a tropical island.”
Before Night Falls continues with performances March 24 and 25.
John Fleming writes for Musical America, Opera News and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.