Recordings > Opera and Oratorio

DAVIS: Río de Sangre

spacer Pine, Walsh, Ledo; LeBron, Duykers, Rideout, Casas; Florentine Opera Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, J. Rescigno. Text and translation. Albany Records, Troy 1296/97 (2)

RioSangreCD

Don Davis, who is probably best known for his scores to the three Matrix films, is also a prolific composer of orchestral and chamber music. His ambitious and adventurous opera, Río de Sangre, was commissioned by Florentine Opera Company of Milwaukee and recorded live during its premiere performances in October 2010. The original English prose libretto is by Kate Gale, and the opera is performed in a Spanish translation by Alicia Partnoy. 

Davis is an expert at using the orchestra to provide characterization — in fact, the underscoring is often more compelling than the vocal lines. His facility with the materials of contemporary music is also obvious in the galvanizing instrumental interludes between scenes. One transition is reminiscent of John Adams, with colorful, pulsing arpeggiations; others are searingly dramatic and jarring, revealing Davis's irrepressible cinematic flair. He's willing to use intense dissonance to depict violence or turmoil, sliding easily along the spectrum from tonality to atonality to create the right mood for his purposes.

Davis and Gale's story of political intrigue and family tragedy centers around Christian Delacruz, the newly installed president of an unnamed South American country. Guido LeBron isn't quite up to the challenge of this role, despite his firm, ruddy baritone. As he addresses the crowd from a balcony in the first scene, his phrasing sounds note-by-note and monochromatic. Though the assembled mob cheers gamely, little about LeBron's delivery seems to merit their enthusiasm.

Fortunately, several supporting characters quickly bring the proceedings to life. John Duykers, as Delacruz's right-hand man Jesús Guajardo, has an extended back-and-forth with the new president and sings with authoritative, penetrating timbre, as Davis's colorful and adventurous score swirls descriptively underneath. Guajardo rarely sings without ominous dissonance creeping in from the orchestra — perhaps too obviously, but Davis certainly knows how to make his point. Rubin Casas, as Bishop Ruiz, delivers a powerful, fervent confirmation service in Latin. As Igneo, a young political colleague of Delacruz, the clarion-voiced Vale Rideout is soaring and impassioned, especially when he asks the president for his daughter's hand in marriage. And Ava Pine, as Bianca, the doomed daughter in question, has a lovely, pure, focused sound that serves her especially well in the shimmering, haunting aria she sings about Igneo while she's being held hostage.

Kerry Walsh, as Antonia Delacruz, the president's wife, has two long arias expressing her grief as both of her children in turn meet tragic ends. Even when the spiky vocal writing is at its most treacherous, Walsh steadfastly maintains her commitment to her character; the first piece lands as a convincing emotional journey. By the second, however, her sultry but vibrato-heavy sound, which sometimes centers just below the pitch, wears out its welcome.

As Estella, a nightclub singer, Mabel Ledo has a naturally flowing mezzo that's easy on the ear, but her consonants are mushy, which blocks the immediacy of expression one might expect from a club singer. Davis introduces each nightclub scene with episodes of very authentic-sounding cantina music. It would have been fascinating if the subsequent sung passages had somehow been influenced by these bursts of salsa (or vice versa), but the dialogue between Estella and Delacruz reverts to Davis's modernist idiom, with scarcely a nod to the lighter pop side he has just trotted out.

Several choral passages, usually occurring at moments of mourning, are especially memorable, as the full chorus and orchestra seem to grieve at full throttle. In Act III, the chorus depicts the crowd rioting in the streets, and it's gratifyingly cataclysmic. (The Florentine Opera Chorus and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform magnificently under the obviously skilled Joseph Rescigno.) But Delacruz himself — partly because of the material, partly because of LeBron's performance — emerges as something of a cipher. If a leader needs to be a great communicator, then it comes as no surprise that Duy­kers's Guajardo wrests power from LeBron's Delacruz in the end. spacer 

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3