Opera Review: EL ÚLTIMO SUEÑO DE FRIDA Y DIEGO (San Diego Opera at the Civic Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on November 3, 2022

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego

DAY OF THE DEAD, WITH A TOUCH OF KAHLO’S HUMOR

If you think this is going to be the story of Frida Kahlo’s life set to operatic music, you’ve got another think coming. Conversely, if you might skip this show because you think you don’t know enough about the lives of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, here’s all you need to know: Their relationship was extremely turbulent, Frida was seriously injured in a traffic accident in 1925, she died in 1954, and Diego lived into late November of 1957. You’re now fully caught up, because our story has almost nothing to do with their actual lives.  It’s a glorious, spiritual, fantasy fiction, set on November 1, 1957, about what it might have been like for Frida to have dwelled three years in the land of the dead. And she is not a happy camper.

Mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz is Frida Kahlo

In composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz’s Spanish-language tale, Diego (Alfredo Daza) grieves for Frida (Guadalupe Paz) and pines for her to appear to him in some form. In the land of the dead, Frida hears this, but wants nothing more to do with him or life on earth, which she primarily recalls as a mix of physical pain and emotional struggle. The supernatural Catrina (Maria Katzarava), “Keeper of the Souls,” tries to tempt her to go back for 24 hours on the Day of the Dead, but Frida, very repeatedly, refuses. Frida then meets a cross-dressing dead actor named Leonardo (Key’mon W. Murrah), who is obsessed with Greta Garbo. Leonardo convinces Frida that she needs to go back, if only for the sake of revisiting her art. That’s pretty much all that happens in Act I, taking an hour to tell that with the kind of pacing that opera utilizes.

Baritone Alfredo Daza (Diego Rivera) works on his mural

Herein lies the difference between standard theatre musicals and opera. During the talkback, one audience member stunned the panel with: “Is there a reason that Act I was so slow?” After conductor Roberto Kolb clarified for himself that she didn’t mean he had conducted the music too slowly, he addressed her key point (and I paraphrase): “If you come into this hoping it’s going to be paced like Pulp Fiction, you’re going to miss out on the experience. It’s about losing yourself in the costumes, the scenery, the set pieces and props, and the luxury of these voices. And that may mean having an espresso first for some people. But if you can let go of ‘getting on with it’ and relish the grandeur of it all, it needs to play out in just this way.” An unrehearsed response so perfect and accurate that it yielded applause from the patrons.

A scene from the world premiere of El último sueño de Frida y Diego

In this world premiere, the collaboration between director Lorena Maza and scenery designer Jorge Ballina makes exquisite use of geometry, creating triangles of significance and power that lead the eye in the right direction. The two create an otherworldliness for the land of the dead with monochrome décor ranging only from white to red, illuminated by hundreds of candles, that distinguishes it from the colorful realm of the living. Enormous empty frames and screens drop from the ceiling, allowing actors to recreate famous paintings. Eloise Kazan’s grandiose costumes and Jenn Hill’s remarkable makeup (especially on the creepy Catrina) could dazzle your attention even if no one were singing.

Soprano Maria Katzarava is Catrina

And, oh, the singing! While this theater reviewer is not qualified to compare the quality of these operatic voices to others, he’d be stunned to find anyone who was less than awed by them all. In particular, some of the repartee sung between Daza and Paz in Act II, was beautifully mournful in tone. Katzarava showcases both her talent and playfulness as Catrina; since no one has ever played the role before, she clearly delights in making it her own, alternating between seething and laughing at a moment’s notice. Despite all that goes on between Diego and Frida, perhaps Murrah’s Leonardo is the most poignant character of all, expressed in a lovingly soulful duet with Paz.

Scene from the world premiere of El último sueño de Frida y Diego

It is a credit to San Diego Opera that they sought to produce this Spanish language piece — for nearly 10 years. Besides the fact that Spanish seems the obvious choice, given the two focal characters and the Day of the Dead theme, the choice of a Spanish-language production was an excellent and successful opportunity to open the Civic’s doors to a large segment of San Diego’s community. Supertitles (in both English and Spanish) make it virtually impossible to imagine anyone who can read saying that they couldn’t follow this program. In addition, it was announced that all future San Diego Opera productions will be supertitled in both languages, regardless of the language being sung, heightening their plans for inclusion and growth.

Mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz and countertenor Key'mon W. Murrah

Despite all of what is said above, for some, El Último Sueño is just going to progress too slowly; for others, intermission will be a jolting awakening, pulling them out of the glorious world Ms. Maza and the cast create. This span of perspective is no fault of the production or the audience member’s couth; opera is just not everyone’s delight. Even yours truly guiltily craved a bit more advancement of plot after numerous, gorgeous restatements of the same missive in Act I. But not enough so, thankfully, to undermine an appreciation of the tremendous talent and stunning spectacle that SDO has so finely produced. What a glorious intro to opera for this novice taking a first dive with this ultimate dream.

Mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz and baritone Alfredo Daza

photos by Karli Cadel

El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego
San Diego Opera
San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Avenue
ends on Sunday Nov 6, 2022 at 2pm
for tickets, call 619-533-7000 or visit SD Opera

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