Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cincinnati Opera's 'Frida': Artist who represents much to so many wanted only to represent herself truly

Outstanding portrayal: Catalina Cuervo as Frida.
In a pre-performance talk about his opera "Frida" Friday night in Cincinnati, Robert Xavier Rodriguez identified the appeal of his subject across a spectrum that doesn't necessarily include opera buffs: the feminist, visual arts, LGBT, leftist, Latino (specifically Mexican), and disabled communities all claim a piece of the Frida Kahlo phenomenon.

Rodriguez's 1991 musical survey of the artist's life (1907-1954) transcends these pigeonholes, fortunately, even while it benefits from association with them. Importing a Michigan Opera Theatre production to the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center, Cincinnati Opera displayed this transcendence mainly in the performance of Catalina Cuervo in the title role. Whenever you can make a deeply flawed character lovable onstage, you've achieved something special.

Cuervo displayed a strong voice in all registers, leaning with special vividness toward her lower range. She was steadily thrilling as she sang, but she also mastered the dramatic requirements in her spoken voice and folded both kinds of vocalism into a full-size charisma. She was complemented in her portrayal by the larger-than-life performance of baritone Ricardo Herrera as Diego Rivera, thus presenting a double portrait of the 20th century's most fascinating couple in the arts. Who can compare? F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were sozzled suburbanites in comparison, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner victims in different ways of ruthless art ideology and marketing.

 Diego Rivera (Ricardo Herrera)  holds forth
Rivera remains the artist of broader genius, which "Frida" commendably acknowledges. But she never settled into a role as "Mrs. Rivera," even from the time she first set her sights on the already famous master. Separating herself from her dutiful peers early as a schoolgirl, in one of the opera's many clearly drawn scenes, Frida Kahlo overcame both the handicap of polio and  horrifying injuries in a bus-tram collision to wring art out of both her extraordinary intelligence and the richness of her emotional and sensuous life. Intimate connection with Mexico's most celebrated artist was a cornerstone of her hard-won progress.

Frida's striking imagery — so much narrower and more personal than Rivera's in large part — is tellingly communicated in the hypnotically compelling stage picture (Monika Essen's design). The tangle of dead tree branches, the anatomical detail of breasts and heart, the monkeys, a giant moth, and a large weeping eye dominate the set in perfect balance.

Conceived in two acts encompassing 13 scenes, "Frida" inevitably has aspects of "A Beginner's Guide to Frida Kahlo," which may tempt some in attendance to wonder if they are witnessing a stage version of a PBS documentary. Rodriguez's roiling music and its embrace of so many styles, from opera to Broadway, from folk music to cabaret, are part of the reason "Frida" escapes such limitations.

In addition to a harvest of blatant ensemble verve, the small orchestra, conducted smartly by Andres Cladera, delivers bouquets of piquant solos, with instrumentation tweaked toward the vernacular with the inclusion of prominent parts for Spanish guitar and accordion.

The quality of the performances, mainly Cuervo's, completes the assurance that we are not just witnessing a lively checklist of Kahlo episodes: Her radicalism, her health challenges, her liaison with Rivera, the couple's contrasting responses to Rivera's American opportunities, the infidelity on both sides, involvement on entirely different footings with the exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and the American film star/art collector Edward G. Robinson. Jose Maria Condemi's fluent stage direction is largely responsible for knitting the narrative together.

Masked dancers, calaveras stylized after Day of the Dead traditions, open the show and are later vital components of Frida's post-accident aria, "Death dances around my body at night." Frida remains heroically resistant to allowing her near-constant pain and visions of death to limit her ambition or energy, much of it sexual as well as artistic.

Diego (third from left) succumbs to the allure of New York as his wife resists it.
There are strong anthemic renditions of folk-like ensemble songs, notably "Viva Zapata" early in the opera, suggesting the challenge to Rivera's position on the Mexican left that prompted him to work abroad. Satirical numbers also pop up in the explicit manner of Broadway, such as the breezy self-involvement of the New York beau monde, capped by advice the show's Rockefeller gives to the artist: "Let your art tell the people what we want them to think."

Frida's pushback against this directive is more explicit than her husband's. She wears a lavishly colorful traditional dress and headpiece to a formal party and parries socialite comments snarkily. Diego's subtler resistance involves his inclusion of a portrait of Lenin in an expansive mural painting commissioned for Rockefeller Center that was canceled unfinished. (Though his objecting benefactor is not explicitly identified in "Frida," it was future New York governor and U.S. vice president Nelson Rockefeller.)

Worth noting about Friday's performance in addition to the starring couple is the excellence of Benjamin Lee as Alejandro, Frida's first lover, and the poignantly isolated and libidinously needy Trotsky, and Reilly Nelson as Lupe Marin, Rivera's  peppery, sensual and eventually discarded second wife as he solemnizes his soul-mate attraction to Frida in effervescent nuptials.

Whatever the decline in mutual commitment that was to come subsequently, this potpourri of musical-stage richness makes it unmistakably clear that Diego and Frida were perpetually meant for each other — in their tumultuous world and the one beyond. "Frida" memorializes handsomely a unique contribution to modern world art. So let Kahlo be iconic to various communities; she resists compartmentalization. Her overall significance goes well past any such sorting out. This opera is ample testament to that.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

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