Colors come out in the world: Frida, review

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Despite its lifespan of three decades, Frida stays fresh and flashy. Lots of sex, angst and art (and a bit of pot) propel him into contemporary times. Above all, the intricate music and witty libretto make the story come to life fully – and I guess the opera will continue to breathe for decades to come.

The opera was staged and acclaimed throughout Europe and the United States, its premiere in 1991 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. It opened in Portland on June 22 for a sold-out four-day race, although performances on June 26 and 27 were canceled due to the heat wave.

The Portland Opera’s 2021 production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

Frida marked the first time in 16 months since pandemic restrictions began that Portland Opera has invited a live audience. Bursting with anticipation to relive the music live, opera fans sat outside, socially distant from each other in front of OMSI’s Jordan Schnitzer outdoor stage. The waxing gibbous moon emerged from a clear sky as the opera ended 95 minutes after its start. Long live Fridas! rang, just like bravos! in a proper and predictable Portland manner.

The opera deserved all the praise it received even though the singers were mics like a musical performance and the MAX and freight trains were tuned intermittently with thundering vocals and ringing bells.

Minimalist staging by director Andreas Mitisek (in 2019 he conducted the transgender play at the Portland Opera Like a), and dramatically lit with shifting backdrops of artwork by Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera, the opera fully integrated visual art with music, story, and characters. The six-member cast gave solid performances, including all four singers, each of whom sang multiple parts, other than stars Kahlo (soprano Catalina Cuervo) and Rivera (baritone Bernardo Bermudez).

Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in the Portland Opera production of Frida.  Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in the Portland Opera production of “Frida”. Photo by Trace Downen.

Unconventional heroine

In these days of multiculturalism and multiple gender identities, Kahlo, a daring and courageous bisexual Mexican artist who died at age 47 in 1954, reigns as a heroine of the unconventional. Opera does a lot to make us care about it, aside from its nonconformism. This gives Kahlo many dimensions, allowing us to see her as a complex, deeply thoughtful, sometimes sassy and sarcastic human being, rather than a restless, pain-tortured, and loving art icon. “The original creative team made sure to include Kahlo’s sense of humor, powerful sexuality and radical politics. They have avoided portraying the kind of noble victimization that too often over-sentimentalizes accounts of Kahlo’s turbulent life, ”Oregon Arts Watch’s Brett Campbell wrote last week in his“ Beyond Fridolatry ”article.

Catalina Cuervo in the title role of the Portland Opera production of Frida.  Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo in the title role of the Portland Opera production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

And what about that mustache and unibrow that confirms his status as an outsider? These were there. Her German-Jewish father told Rivera when he proposed to marry in the late 1920s that “she’s not pretty, but she’s very smart.” And he’s a devil. Frida’s intelligence and artistic sensibility (“I paint the secrets inside,” she sings) sets her apart from so many transparent opera heroines. These qualities keep her character and opera at a high level.

If you attended the opera to learn more about its art, you will. Why is she so fond of painting monkeys, for example? When they’re around, they comfort her, keep her “sane” and pick up her hem to look at her, she explains. Why did she paint “The Wounded Deer” in 1946 with nine arrows piercing its coat? She sees herself as a cat, with nine lives, thick skin and difficult to kill. And why so many self-portraits? A will to survive.

Frida traces much of Kahlo’s dramatic and angst-filled life, not to mention his childhood. The huge part is sung by soprano Cuervo, made up to look eerily like Kahlo. She sings and acts as if she have been Kahlo, or whatever I imagine she is. The opera brings Rivera, Kahlo’s larger-than-life lover / husband / artist (she married him twice) for the tumultuous ride, making him a co-star and acknowledging his significant influence on Kahlo. Silky-voiced baritone Bermudez as Magnetic Rivera maintains her extra-marital sex life and extra-marital sex life, characteristics that Kahlo hates and for which she often forgives him – even though she wasn’t a nun. nor holy.

But she is the star

Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in the Portland Opera production of Frida.  Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in the Portland Opera production of “Frida”. Photo by Trace Downen.

Rivera and his art eclipsed Kahlo in their early 1920s to 1940s life, but opera, of course, gives Kahlo the main advantage. The opening scene chronicles her horrific bus accident that crippled her at 18 and confined her to a wheelchair. Working on her own art, she goes on to be captivated by the charms and epic talents of Rivera’s painting, and later, by the afternoon intellectual advances of the exiled and bespectacled Leon Trotsky. She falls into the arms of women (“she’s always a woman who knows where I need to be kissed”), reluctantly submits to divorce from Rivera, and finally, believes in her paintings and in herself. -even. In the end, she remarries dear Diego, the love of her life, and her art continues to live on.

Kahlo’s daring chaotic life is a natural fit for a passionate, if not political, opera. Kahlo and Rivera were involved in Communist politics, and for a time Rivera was defended by the working class. In 1933, the Rockefellers hired him to paint a mural, “The Man at a Crossroads,” for Rockefeller Center in New York City, and Rivera painted Lenin in the mural. It was destroyed along with Kahlo’s miscarriage, and soon after, the two returned to Mexico.

As much land as Frida covers in 95 minutes, the opera is far from superficial or light. It has the makings of a classic with a long shelf life. The piece is tightly constructed with Robert X. Rodriguez’s brilliant and witty mix of folk and classical music performed backstage by a small “group” of musicians from the Portland Opera. Conductor Andres Cladera, in his early days with PO, was too humble to bow, barely glancing behind the curtains. The music matched Kahlo’s artistic style, imbued with classic European and Mexican folk influences and themes. The score also reflected his stormy inner life, which may seem as surreal as that of Salvador Dali.

Playwright Migdalia Cruz’s poetic yet linear libretto based on Hilary Blecher’s book is sometimes delivered in Spanish, others in English, and in direct lyrics. (There are English and Spanish subtitles.) All the elements of the opera work together, but sometimes Frida looks more like a musical than an opera. The quality of the singers’ voices reminds us that it is opera. Like Kahlo’s art, “her colors come out of the world”.

Catalina Cuervo as Frida, Adrian Rosales-Casillas as Calaveras and Rachel Hauge as Calaveras in the Portland Opera production of Frida.  Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo as Frida, Adrian Rosales-Casillas as Calaveras and Rachel Hauge as Calaveras in the Portland Opera production of “Frida”. Photo by Trace Downen.

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Angela Allen writes on the arts, particularly opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has regularly contributed to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to students in Oregon and, in 2009, was Residency Writer for Eastern Oregon at Fishtrap. A published poet and photographer, she is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and recipient of the NEA-Columbia Journalism Fellowship. She received an MA in Journalism from the University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MA in Creative Writing / Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and an often cumbersome garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.


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