Frida at the Cincinnati Opera

fridaOh the whole, I enjoyed the Cincinnati Opera’s production of Frida, based on the life of painter, Frida Kahlo. However, I left with decidedly mixed feelings, which is part of the reason this post was so long delayed.

Frida Kahlo is a character well suited to the operatic stage: her life was full of grand passion, physical pain, and high art. However, this opera often felt like a docudrama trying to give a complete view of the life of this remarkable woman.  The result often felt cluttered.  This was especially true in the beginning, which depicts Kahlo as a teenager.  As a dramatization, fewer scenes would have been better.

With its combination of modern classical and authentic folk music, its small orchestra, its informal sections of spoken word, and even its Communist politics, this opera by Robert Xavier Rodríguez is much in the tradition of Kurt Weil (before he migrated to Broadway).  The reference to Mexican folk music started with the very first sound in the overture, a solo chord from the accordion, and  permeated the much of the score.  In general, I thought the music was often effective, but, much like the plot, frequently seemed to lack focus.

The leads, Catalina Cuervo in the title role and Ricardo Herrera as her famous husband Diego Rivera, sang with power and expression.  They were completely believable in their characters.  Among the rest of the cast, the beautiful high voice of Jennifer Cherest, as Frida’s sister Christina, stood out.

the-broken-columnAfter the opera, my wife commented that she welcomed the woman’s touch in the libretto (book by Hilary Blecher, lyrics and monologues by Migdalia Cruzby), especially in the perspective on sex. Indeed, there is scene which earned production an “R” rating, with Frida in the bathtub, wearing an outfit which I later learned was from “The Broken Column”, surrounded by lovers of both sexes.  Sitting in the back of the auditorium, my eyes (still recovering from surgery) were not good enough to see what was really going on, so I don’t really have much to say about this scene.

Otherwise, I found the staging very effective.  The set was on two levels, but the bones of it were quite simple.  When they were apart, Diego, the more famous painter of huge murals, was above, and Frida, the painter of more intimate self portraits, below.   Paintings of both artists were projected onto the set, which connected the action on stage to the art that is the reason we remember these people.

Musically, my favorite scene was the quintet in the second half.  Diego Rivera, who has had women parading through his bedroom for years, is accusing Frida of being unfaithful to him, with Leon Trotsky.  Frida is unapologetic  and emphasizes the intellectual aspect of her relationship with Trotsky.  Trotsky himself seems to be proclaiming innocence, but his rather dowdy wife is having none of that.  Meanwhile, above it all, Christina confesses to having betrayed her own sister.  Whereas I found the composition for much of the opera too cluttered, here all of the contrasting parts were integrated beautifully.  Rather than clutter, it felt like masterful counterpoint.

death2Another section that I thought memorable was the dance around Frida’s death bed.  Death was personified by three masked dancers who had appeared throughout the opera.  Unfortunately, the dramatic effect of this was eviscerated by the satiric dance of the monkeys which followed.  I thought the musical transition was lame, and the antics of the dancers were just not that funny.  Rather than providing comic relief after the intensity of what had just occurred, the monkeys, which do appear in many of Kahlo’s paintings, just added to my general feeling about the entire opera: it was trying to make sure to include everything, to the detriment of the drama.

This opera was in English, with occasional outbursts in Spanish.  This struck me as wrong.  An opera about a woman who was so defiantly Mexican, with so much Mexican folk music mixed in, cries out for Spanish.

Though I admire the staging and the singing, I left the opera with serious reservations. I thought the libretto and much of the music lacked focus.  However, I also left with a deep appreciation for the fierce intensity of this great artist, Frida Kahlo.  So, from that point of view, the opera has to be judged a success.

 

 

The Magic Flute at the Cincinnati Opera

Magic FluteIf you expect reverence for the score written by this great composer at the height of his powers, you will find the  Cincinnati Opera’s production of the Magic Flute galling.  Not only do they make massive cuts, but they add interludes, excerpts from totally unrelated Mozart piano works.  However, I don’t think Mozart would have been bothered by this cavalier attitude.  He was, after all, just creating a bit of entertainment.  And much of this production was delightful.

The set consisted of a giant wall that served as a projection screen for the animation. The singers appeared on the floor in front of it, or in doors cut cut out of the middle or high up near the top.  Sometimes, the singer provided merely the face of the animated character: the Queen of the Night was a giant spider whose legs filled the entire screen.  Other times, the characters interacted with what was happening in the animation.

dragonThe approach was particularly effective in the opening scene: Tamino is chased by a dragon;  he is miraculously saved by a trio of magical creatures, who then turn out to be three silly girls, admiring the handsome young Tamino passed out from his encounter with the dragon. Obviously, this is a good plot for a cartoon. Several times, the music was covered by the laughter of the audience reacting to the sight gags.

The group that designed the production calls itself 1927, named for the year of the first talkie.  They create a unique combination of animation, live action and music in a style that harkens back to the movies of the 1920s.  The costumes and the characterizations were often straight out of the silent pictures.  Papageno is modeled on Buster Keaton, the evil Monostatos, on Nosferatu, the vampire.

The most direct reference to the silent cinema came in the interludes, played on a tinny, slightly de-tuned, piano forte.  It felt very much like an old  silent movie, where the piano player is improvising an accompaniment, setting the mood for whatever was happening in the movie.  They even used 1920s style titles to catch you up on the action.  In this case, the pianist was playing excerpts from Mozart’s D minor Fantasy.  The quick changes of mood in the piece were timed perfectly with the film, so that it seemed that the pianist was reacting to the screen, not the other way around.   Once I got over the fact that it was not The Magic Flute, I enjoyed it.  It felt intimate, quaint, and quite funny.

In the second act, for the most part, they let the music carry the moment.  By this time, their tricks were no longer so fresh and there was much less laughter from the audience.  However, there is a scene, the Trial by Fire and Water, where Mozart has written background music for what was clearly some spectacular stage trick in the original production.  Here, I was expecting our animators to pull out all the stops.  However, I thought this result was rather lame.  Perhaps I was simply no longer enthralled by the spectacle.

There was another problem with all of their cuts.  It is difficult to imagine that you could make the plot of the Magic Flute any more incoherent, but these guys managed it.  One of my favorite pieces is the duet of Papageno and his love, Papagena, near the end of the  opera, called “Pa-pa-pa” after the opening line (I like very simple ideas).  However, in this performance, I realized that part of the beauty and humor of the moment lies in how it has been set up.  Poor Papagena had been almost entirely cut out of the previous action, and her appearance at the end felt tacked on, not emotionally connected to the rest of the drama. Moreover, the production didn’t make nearly as effective use of the Papageno character, usually the source of the comedy, as you would expect; it is as if their imagination was not sparked when the jokes were handed to them by the libretto.

Did I mention that there was music in this opera?  The problem with the whole approach is that the show tended become a movie with live accompaniment.  Occasionally, my wife found it so distracting, she closed her eyes so she could listen better,

Chistopher AllenThe evening began with an overture, done straight, no visuals except the that you could watch the conductor and the musicians.  I have heard this work many times; never have I heard it done better.  So many conductors take “Allegro” as an opportunity to see how fast his players can go; the result is impressive, exciting, but rushed.  This performance was energetic and  lively, but the details were given enough room to sparkle. The orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Allen, played with the intensity that I have come to expect from this world class ensemble.  Here was Mozart the way it should be played. I look forward to hearing Christopher Allen lead them again.

The singing that followed was up to the standard that had set in the overture.  With all that was going on on stage, it was quite a while before I realized how good the tenor, Aaron Blake, was in the role of Tamino.  He has a nice clear voice, and sings with expression.  Similarly, Kim-Lillian Strebel, in the role of Pamina, sang beautifully.

Queen of Night SpiderThe Magic Flute features two roles with extreme ranges; the Queen of the Night is impossibly high, while Sarastro is impossibly low.  Both are written to convey super human mastery: the Queen of the Night’s sinister magic, and Sarastro’s profound understanding of unfathomable mysteries.  Tom McNichols covered the low part with enough power to be heard, which is impressive, but the sound was more annoying than profound.  On the other hand, Jeni Houser not only managed, she blew me away.  Her high notes sounded like a baroque trumpet (except they are higher).  It was acrobatic, powerful, and beautiful.

Among the rest of the cast, the three spirits stood out.  This trio is written for young boys, that is relatively light voices with excellent musicianship and enough power to be heard in an opera house.   Ashley Fabian, Abigail Hoyt, and Paulina Villarreal are not exactly boys, but their voices, in the context of the outsized world of opera, were  perfect for the part. Their singing was delightful. I particularly enjoyed the aria where they interact with the heroine Pamina.  The singing was expressive, and the contrast in the quality of the trio with the soloist worked perfectly.

In sum, the plot was even more of a mess than usual.  The staging was inventive and delightful, and certainly worth seeing. And the music was just great, Mozart at his finest.

Come see it you can