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Thread: Frida at the Cincinnati Opera

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    Opera Lively News Coordinator Top Contributor Member MAuer's Avatar
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    Frida at the Cincinnati Opera

    Performance of 23 June 2017
    Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts

    Opera in two acts by Robert Xavier Rodriguez
    Libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz

    Conductor: Andrés Cladera
    The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
    Director: José Maria Condemi
    Production from Michigan Opera Theater
    Choreographer: Marco Pelle
    Set and costume designer: Monika Essen
    Lighting designer: Thomas C. Hase
    Hair and makeup designer: James Geier
    Production stage manager: Constance Dubinski Grubbs

    Frida Kahlo: Catalina Cuervo
    Diego Rivera: Ricardo Herrera
    Cristina Kahlo: Jennifer Cherest
    Alejandro Gomes Arias/Leon Trotsky: Benjamin Lee
    Lupe Marín/Dima’s Mother: Reilly Nelson
    Petate Vendor/Guillermo Kahlo/Nelson Rockefeller: Thomas Dreeze
    Henry Ford: Pedro André Arroyo
    Mrs. Rockefeller: Emma Sorensen
    Mrs. Ford/Natalia Sedova: Erin Keesy
    Edward G. Robinson: Samson McCrady
    Calaveras: Melissa Harvey, Paulina Villarreal, John Overholt

    The events in the opera are really a condensation of key moments in Frida Kahlo’s life, so the plot only make sense if one has some detailed knowledge of her biography. She was born in 1907 in Coyoacán, then a town on the outskirts of Mexico City, to the photographer Guillermo (Wilhelm) Kahlo, a German who had immigrated to Mexico in 1891, and Matilde Calderón y González. As a young child, she contracted polio, and the resulting disability made her an introvert, but brought her emotionally close to her father, who suffered from epilepsy that was the result of an accident (and who’d had to abandon his university studies in Germany as a consequence). It also delayed her school enrollment; however, by the age of 15, she was admitted to the prestigious National Preparatory School.
    She excelled academically, taking natural science courses as part of her goal to become a physician, as well as reading extensively. The latter fostered an interest in politics, social justice, and a Mexican identity that prompted Frida to found a group called the Cachucas with nine other students. They staged plays and engaged in philosophical debates, but also enjoyed pulling pranks as part of their opposition to anything conservative. When she was 18, she and her boyfriend, a fellow Cachuca named Alejandro Gomes Arias, were passengers on a wooden bus that collided with a streetcar. She sustained serious injuries, including multiple fractures and some displaced vertebrae, and suffered pain for the rest of her life as a result. Her injuries scuttled her plans for a medical career, and while she convalesced, she began painting – she had enjoyed art since childhood and had received drawing instruction from a friend of her father. Using an easel that allowed her to paint while lying in bed and with a mirror fitted above the easel, she began painting self-portraits. Her art enabled her to explore questions of existence and identity, and self-portraits would later become an important component of her work. By the time the enforced bed rest was over, the 20 year-old Frida began socializing with her school friends again, who were now attending the university and had become involved in student politics. She joined the Mexican Communist Party, and it was through leading Party figures that she met the noted muralist Diego Rivera.
    She and Diego soon became lovers, despite their 21-year age difference and his reputation as a womanizer who’d already had two common-law wives. He was also what we would probably regard as a male chauvinist who insisted that Frida discard Western attire in favor of the Mexican Tehuana dress. They married in 1929, and moved the following year to Cuernavaca, where Diego had been engaged by the U.S. ambassador to paint murals in the Palace of Cortés. When this project was completed, the couple headed for the States and stays in San Francisco, New York, and Detroit. They were celebrities, wined and dined by the wealthy and introduced to several leading American artists, among them Nicholas Muray, with whom Frida had a long affair that probably began during her six months in California.
    At this point, Rivera was considered the more significant artist, with Frida still introducing herself as his wife. After a sojourn in the Big Apple for his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the couple spent a year in Detroit, where Diego had been commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to paint murals for the city’s Institute of Arts. But while Frida had enjoyed her time on the coasts, Detroit was another matter. She found most Americans boring, regarded the society as colonialist, and disliked hobnobbing with the likes of Henry Ford and his son Edsel. This was during the Great Depression, and she contrasted the excesses of wealthy capitalists like the Fords to the poverty many other people were suffering. She also endured more medical problems, including a failed abortion and then a miscarriage and hemorrhage when she tried to carry the pregnancy to term. Perhaps not surprisingly, suffering, pain, and wounds began appearing as motifs in her paintings. After Detroit, Frida and her husband returned to New York, where he was to paint a mural for the Rockefeller Center. An international scandal resulted when he was fired from the project for including Lenin’s likeness in his mural and refusing to remove it.
    The couple returned to Mexico, primarily because of Frida’s homesickness; Diego had wanted to remain in the U.S. She was soon beset by more health problems, undergoing an appendectomy, an abortion, and amputation of some gangrenous toes. Her marriage was also in trouble; while having extramarital affairs was nothing new for Rivera, his liaison with Frida’s younger sister Cristina was a serious affront that hurt deeply. The couple temporarily separated, and Frida became involved in an affair of her own with the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. Several months later, she reconciled with her husband and her sister, though both spouses continued their philandering. She became politically active once more, and after the Riveras persuaded the Mexican government to grant asylum to Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia Sedova, Diego and Frida offered the latter’s childhood home, La Casa Azul, as a residence to the Russians. During the two years the Trotskys lived in the house, Frida and Leon became close friends and engaged in a brief fling.
    The final years of the 1930s found her enjoying considerable professional success; she sold four paintings at $200 each (approximately $5,000 each today) to the film star Edward G. Robinson, who was also a serious art collector. The actor used his connections to arrange exhibitions of her work in New York and Paris, and the New York show led to commissions from Clare Booth Luce and the Museum of Modern Art president. While in Manhattan, she continued the affair with Muray while also taking gallery owner Julien Levy and Edgar Kaufmann Jr. as lovers. For a number of reasons, among them the looming threat of war, her visit to France was not as successful, though she did become the first Mexican artist to have a painting purchased by the Louvre. Upon her return to New York, Muray announced his intention to end their relationship and marry another woman. Back in Mexico City, Frida discovered that Diego wanted a divorce, evidently tired of the cheating both of them engaged in. By November, 1939, the divorce was official, though they remained friends and Frida continued to handle his correspondence and finances.
    The following year brought more trouble. In August, Trotsky was assassinated in Coyoacán, and for a time, Frida was suspected of being involved. She and Cristina even spent a couple of days in jail. More health problems compelled her to return to San Francisco for treatment, and since parting from Diego, she was also seeking consolation in large quantities of alcohol. After Trotsky’s assassination, Diego had fled from Mexico to San Francisco, and in spite of her affair with an art dealer, the two decided to tie the knot again and were remarried in December. They returned once again to Mexico City, and the next five years were relatively quiet – though neither one of them stopped taking extramarital lovers. Frida’s health problems continued to worsen, and her father’s death in April, 1941, brought on another bout of depression. She spent most of her time at La Casa Azul, gardening, caring for pets, and receiving visits from friends.
    In 1950, she was admitted to the hospital in Mexico City for spinal surgery, but that led to a serious infection that necessitated additional operations. When she was finally able to return home, she was dependent upon crutches and a wheelchair for mobility, and Diego, her friends, art, and politics became increasingly important to her. At this point, she concentrated on still-life paintings, with political symbols interspersed among fruit and flowers. Photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo arranged for the first solo exhibition of Frida’s work at Mexico’s Contemporary Art Gallery in April, 1953, and though the doctor had placed her on bed rest, Frida was determined to attend the opening. She had her bed transported to the gallery and arrived at the facility in an ambulance, from which she was carried on a stretcher to the waiting bed. She remained ensconced there for the remainder of the gala. Later that year, five of her paintings were selected for an exhibition on Mexican art at London’s prestigious Tate Gallery. Unfortunately, she also had to have the lower half of her right leg below the knee amputated that August, and the loss of part of a limb, added to the discovery that Diego was probably involved in another affair, sent her into a depression so severe that she attempted suicide by an overdose. She became addicted to painkillers and had to be hospitalized again in April and May of 1954.
    That spring, she resumed painting, this time with primarily political subjects, and by 2 July, managed to take part with Diego in a demonstration against the CIA intervention in Guatemala. But the exertion required was more than her already precarious physical condition could withstand. By 12 July, she was running a high fever and experiencing terrible pain, and on the morning of the 13th, her nurse found Frida dead in bed. She appeared to have taken an overdose of painkillers, and that, along with the fact that she’d given Diego an anniversary present a month ahead of time on the previous evening, the contents of her diary, and her earlier suicide attempt suggested that she’d planned to take her life.

    The first act is comprised of seven scenes representing a succession of time periods, the first of which is set in Mexico City in 1923. Frida, Alejandro, and the other Cachucas harass a group of schoolgirls before Frida notices a poor woman begging a vendor to sell her a mat so that she can bury her son. The teenager is moved by the woman’s poverty and subsequently inspired with revolutionary zeal when she watches a celebration by the Zapatistas’ Army of Liberation. The following scenes in 1925 show Frida sharing her dreams for the future with Cristina and the bus-tram collision; a chronological jump to 1928 has Diego painting a mural at the National Preparatory School, where Lupe Marín (later one of his common-law wives) tries to gain his attention. Later, Frida visits the muralist to show him her portfolio, and Lupe becomes jealous when she observes Diego’s interest in the young artist. Evidently, her mood hasn’t improved by the time Frida and Diego are married, when Lupe turns up at their wedding and creates a scene. There is another small leap in time to 1930-31, and the spouses are now in Diego’s studio, where Frida is critiquing his portrait of Emiliano Zapata. They are interrupted when a group of Communist revolutionaries burst in and denounce Rivera; subsequently, the couple decides to pursue their careers in the U.S. In New York (1931-33), they attend a soirée hosted by the Fords and Rockefellers, and while Diego revels in the fat cats’ admiration, Frida ridicules them. Later, she gives a lively interview to some journalists, and Diego receives the commission for the Rockefeller Center mural. The final scene shows some of the ensuing uproar, as Nelson Rockefeller berates Diego for his Communist sympathies and the mural is finally destroyed. Frida suffers her miscarriage and persuades her husband to return to Mexico.
    Act II begins with the pair at home in San Angel during the years 1933-34, but while Frida is happy to be back, Diego is miserable. She ignores his succession of mistresses until she learns that Cristina is one of them. The action moves forward to 1937, when Trotsky and his wife are visiting the Riveras. Diego and Natalia confront Frida and Leon over their obvious dalliance; Cristina expresses remorse for betraying her sister; and Diego and Frida finally realize their differences can’t be reconciled. She retreats to the isolation of her home and comforts herself with both male and female lovers. The fourth scene, at a New York art gallery, takes some liberties with the facts. The librettists have Diego back in the States and trying to promote Frida’s work there; it’s Diego who supposedly meets with Edward G. Robinson and persuades him to buy several of her paintings. And only at this point is Frida shown becoming involved with Nicholas Muray. Finally, the Riveras decide to divorce. The penultimate scene occurs entirely in Frida’s imagination. Beset by physical and emotional pain, she has continued painting, and the audience sees some of her best-known works – “The Broken Column,” “The Wounded Deer,” and “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” – as they come to life in her mind. The opera ends with an entirely fictional account of her demise. It’s 1954 and Frida has been hospitalized. Delirious, she recalls significant moments from her past, including Trotsky’s assassination and the accusation of complicity. Diego arrives; he sings to entertain her and proposes that they marry again. Frida agrees, and they joyfully celebrate as she finally dies, her last words a salute to life, joy, and Diego.

    Like the lady herself, the opera is bold, colorful, and full of life and passion. Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s music – the composer himself was in attendance yesterday evening – combines modern tonal style with Mexican folk melodies and some American jazz influences. It’s paired with dialogue passages written by Migdalia Cruz and librettist Hilary Blecher. To succeed, this work needs a strong singer-personality in the title role, and the Cincinnati Opera has one in Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo. Her voice has a clear, warm, beautiful quality in the mid-range and top paired with a sensuous, chesty low register, where a considerable portion of Frida’s music lies. She handled the dialogue well and is a charismatic actress who knows how to command the stage. Bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera was an excellent Diego Rivera vocally and dramatically, able to hold his own against Cuervo’s powerful heroine, and he made her attraction to the much older man comprehensible. Jennifer Cherest brought a lovely lyric soprano to her touching Cristina, delivering a moving account of the younger sister’s anguish over her betrayal of Frida, while tenor Benjamin Lee was both an appealing young Alejandro and a rather hapless Leon Trotsky, who was no match for his irate wife. That formidable woman was portrayed by soprano Erin Keesy, who earlier was equally convincing as the shallow, patronizing Mrs. Ford. The cast included another versatile actress in mezzo Reilly Nelson, who filled the roles of the desperate, impoverished mother of a dead baby in the first scene of Act I and the sultry, sexy, bitchy, and vengeful Lupe Marín in the fourth scene. Baritone Thomas Dreeze also successfully wore several hats during the first act, appearing as the petate vendor in the first scene and later as Frida’s father Guillermo and finally Nelson Rockefeller. Baritone Samon McCrady was a likeable Edward G. Robinson, even if he looked nothing like the Romanian immigrant (real name Emmanuel Goldenberg) who was often cast in gangster roles. However, Blecher and Cruz make him seem a rather naïve enthusiast instead of the serious art collector he was. Tenor Pedro André Arroyo and mezzo Emma Sorenson were fine as Henry Ford and the slinky, elegant Mrs. Rockefeller, respectively. The cast was rounded out by the Calaveras – skulls – of soprano Melissa Harvey, mezzo Paulina Villareal, and tenor John Overholt. Garbed in white and red folk costumes and wearing skull masks, they looked as though they could have been part of a Dia de los Muertos celebration. There was also a trio of dancer Calaveras, portrayed by Cincinnati Ballet members Oğucan Borova, Maizyalet Velásquez, and Daniel Wagner, who opened the performance by silently creeping onto the stage. Conductor Andrés Cladera led a lively, exciting account of Rodriguez’s score by the outstanding Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, while director José Maria Condemi, assistant director Marco Pelle, and production designer Monika Essen provided a credible treatment of the opera’s action supported by strong visuals and seamless scene changes. At the curtain, there was a standing ovation for all involved, composer included.

  2. #2
    Opera Lively Media Consultant Top Contributor Member Ann Lander (sospiro)'s Avatar
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    What a fascinating woman. She certainly packed in a lot of living despite disabilities and illnesses and a great subject for an opera.

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