By Janelle Gelfand
Designed by Monika Essen and directed by Jose Maria Condemi, the 2015 production originated at Michigan Opera Theatre. It unfolds cinematically in 13 scenes over two acts to a vivid and clever libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz.
The opera offers an unflinching view of the artist’s lifelong torments as well as her passions. Perhaps it’s a sign of the world’s continued fascination with Frida that all seven performances were sold out before opening night — albeit in the small, 437-seat Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, in downtown Cincinnati. The production, through July 8, coincides with the 110th anniversary of Kahlo’s birth (July 6, 1907).
Cincinnati is the sixteenth city to present Frida since its world premiere at Plays and Players Theater in Philadelphia, a commission of the American Music Theater Festival (now Prince Theater). In the words of composer Rodriguez, who was in town for the Cincinnati premiere, Frida “was an opera waiting to happen.”
Kahlo’s surreal self-portraits mirrored facets of her complicated life. She survived polio at age 6 and in 1925 she was nearly killed in a bus accident in which a steel handrail impaled her body. She endured pain, multiple surgeries, and miscarriages.
In her turbulent marriage to the muralist Diego Rivera, they both flaunted their infidelities, he with Frida’s sister Cristina, she with the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. But Frida also captures her unabashed sense of humor and sexuality. Her world as depicted in the opera includes joyous dancing by brilliantly costumed Mexican dancers at her wedding to Diego. There is an entertaining scene between the artist wearing her traditional Mexican Tehuana dress and snooty patrons at a New York party with the Rockefellers and Fords.
No less engaging is Rodriguez’s score, which is as complex and richly layered as Frida’s personality. It is colored with folkloric Mexican music, jazz, sophisticated modernism, sensuous atmosphere, and subtle musical quotations. (The orchestra plays the Tristan chord when Frida confronts Henry Ford about his anti-Semitism.) With its Broadway-style songs, amplified singers, dialogue, and monologues, this opera might be just as happy on the musical theater stage.
Essen’s fantasy-like, bi-level set design allowed Diego to paint his murals on a platform or carry on upstairs with a parade of lovers while Frida painted on the level below. The designer’s use of projections on several “canvases” was striking. Frida was photographed once in a gown and shawl, imitated by her image on a Vogue magazine cover projected behind her.
As a sign of Frida’s ever-present dance with death, calaveras — death figures in skull masks — accompanied her on her life’s journey. In one of the opera’s most powerful moments, Condemi staged Frida’s miscarriage as a nightmarish scene with the calaveras, a puppet turning on a stick as if on a spit, and streams of red ribbons. As Frida was presented with a mass of ribbons symbolic of her miscarriage, the image projected was of the famous painting of her in a hospital bed lying in a pool of blood (Henry Ford Hospital of 1932).
Taking on the title role, Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo delivered a performance that was nothing short of a tour-de-force. She inhabited Frida’s persona completely, from the defiant schoolgirl who joins the Mexican Communist Party to the woman who lusts for life in all of its manifestations.
Cuervo delivered the monologues in a dusky contralto. In arias, her singing was infused with fiery emotion. As a musical metaphor, Rodriguez often set Frida’s vocal lines in three-quarter time against musical forces performing in duple meter, illustrating that she sang as she lived, “against the tide from the very first note.”
In Act II, Condemi crafted a sensuous, slow-motion scene for Frida and her lovers of both sexes. Bathed in white light, she sang topless in a bathtub, wearing a strapped corset mimicking the one the artist painted in The Broken Column (1944). Rodriguez’s languid music included a rapturous violin solo. (The scene might not have played in Cincinnati in 1991, one year after the Mapplethorpe controversy. Though times have changed, the company has nonetheless rated the show “R for sexuality, nudity, and drug references.”)
Ricardo Herrera’s portrayal of Diego Rivera was both seamless and larger than life. A firm bass-baritone, he was convincing whether vowing that “art is for the common man” before leaving Mexico for New York or expansively promising Rockefeller that his mural for Rockefeller Center would be “the story of humankind — science, factories, assembly lines.” When he eventually painted Lenin into the mural, it was splashed with white paint in a video effect.
In the opera, the two artists are a charismatic couple. At one point, Frida notes that Diego “paints the big outside. I paint the secrets inside. It makes for a very pretty marriage.”
Among other cast members, Jennifer Cherest made a sensitive Cristina, Frida’s sister. Filling out the cast were Cincinnati Opera Young Artists, who sang anthems as Mexican revolutionaries and, as New York socialites, danced in cocktail attire while Frida taught them to dance “El jarabe.”
The opera is scored for 11 instruments – a kind of mariachi band with strings. Conductor Andrés Cladera provided lithe direction, and musicians from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed superbly in the small pit.
As the composer himself has noted, the music has leanness and irony reminiscent of Kurt Weill, but there are many instances of voluptuous writing to underscore a moment. Gershwin-like jazz and swing inhabit scenes of upscale New York in the 1930s. The Mexican rhythms and folk-like tunes may have sounded familiar, but Rodriguez, a San Antonio native of Mexican descent, said they are of his own invention.
The run-up to Frida’s final dance of death, a seductive waltz, was too drawn out, but the opera succeeded in defining both her fierce independence and her indomitable spirit.
Cincinnati Opera’s 97th Summer Opera Festival, which opened June 15 with Puccini’s La bohème, continues with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (July 15-23), a production of the Komische Oper Berlin co-produced by Los Angeles Opera and Minnesota Opera, and Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar (July 17-21) in collaboration with the Cincinnati chamber ensemble concert:nova.
The company is performing temporarily in the Aronoff Center while its home, Cincinnati Music Hall, undergoes a $135 million, 16-month renovation. The hall is slated to reopen on Oct. 6.
Information: 513-241-2742, cincinnatiopera.org.
Portions of this review appeared on Cincinnati.com and in the Cincinnati Enquirer, where Janelle Gelfand is classical music and arts writer.