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In Review > North America


Cincinnati Opera

Cincinnati Opera’s Frida, with Cuervo and Herrera
© Philip Groshong

CINCINNATI OPERA continued its 2017 season with Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s Frida, based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–54). Sung in English and Spanish, with a libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz, the opera had its premiere in Philadelphia in 1991. In spoken comments before the June 23 performance, the composer said he had recently heard the score described as sounding like the work of a Mexican Kurt Weill, a comment that captures much of the feel of the score, with its mixture of popular material (both authentic folk songs and newly composed material), Rodríguez’s own modernist style and the opera’s sense of high purpose. 

That mixture is an apt parallel to Kahlo’s own art, which incorporates folk elements and materials into something entirely new. In the opera, the difference of styles is unfailingly put to dramatic use. In the opening scene, for example, the traditionally tonal hymn to Zapata is a jarring contrast to the surrounding music, which evokes the suffering of the people, just as Diego Rivera’s equally tonal paean to art later on sounds rather simplistic in its context. The horrifying tram accident that left Kahlo in constant pain for the rest of her life is represented by a jaunty vaudeville number. The contrasts are also evident in the small orchestra, which includes accordion, guitar (doubling banjo), piano, percussion and a handful of winds and strings.

The librettists present a chronological account of the artist’s life, beginning with a scene of injustice that turns the teenage Kahlo to revolutionary politics and ending with her death. Intervening episodes include the tram accident, her meeting with Rivera, their time in New York, their return to Mexico and their love affairs (including her affair with Trotsky), the breakdown of their marriage and their remarriage. As the action progresses, the audience is brought more and more into Kahlo’s internal world, with several of her best-known paintings coming to life and interacting with her in the penultimate scene. Adding to the air of unreality are several calaveras, death figures whose pantomime makes death a constant presence (as in Kahlo’s paintings), but who also interact with the artist, alternately consoling and tormenting her. In this production,
a small ensemble took on many roles,
ranging from Kahlo’s childhood friends to the Fords, the Rockefellers, the Trotskys, Hollywood star Edward G. Robinson and a good many unnamed characters. Stage director Jose Maria Condemi kept the potentially confusing action completely clear.

The production, created for Michigan Opera Theatre, was spare—a bare stage, a raised platform and a variety of moveable props (beds, easels, and so on) brought on and off by cast members. The sets, by Moníka Essen, incorporated details from some of Kahlo’s most famous paintings, and changing projections on screens within the set brought in additional artwork by both Kahlo and Rivera, as well as city skylines to help establish locales. Essen’s colorful costumes were a delight, particularly her re-creation of some of Kahlo’s striking dresses. Cincinnati Opera presented Frida in the intimate Jarson-Kaplan Theater (437 seats) in the Aronoff Center, adding to the immediacy of the performance. The singers were discreetly miked so that the occasional spoken dialogue could easily be heard over the sometimes raucous orchestra. 

Both principals were making Cincinnati Opera debuts. As Frida Kahlo, soprano Catalina Cuervo was totally convincing, conveying Kahlo’s courage, determination and passion at every moment. Much of her music lies low, suiting her dark voice and strong lower register. Ricardo Herrera, who looked uncannily like the young Diego Rivera, was passionate, dignified and at times appropriately ridiculous as the artist. His voice rang out excitingly in such moments as Rivera’s pronouncements on art, yet his moments of tenderness with Frida were warm and intimate. Also making her Cincinnati Opera debut, Jennifer Cherest brought an attractive lyric soprano to the role of Cristina Kahlo, Frida’s sister and sometime rival for Rivera’s affection. 

The ensemble, consisting mostly of members of the Cincinnati Opera Young Artist program, was consistently strong. Many were making their main-stage debuts. They included Erin Keesy, Reilly Nelson, Emma Sorenson, Pedro André Arroyo, Benjamin Lee, Thomas Dreeze and Samson McCrady. The three principal singing calaveras were Melissa Harvey, Paulina Villarreal and John Overholt (sometimes supplemented by other cast members as additional calaveras). Although the program book did not clearly credit them, members of the Cincinnati Ballet joined the singers, with inventive choreography by Marco Pelle. In his Cincinnati Opera debut, conductor Andrés Cladera led an exciting performance, keeping the complex score transparent. —Joe Law

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