Frida and Diego: coming to life on the Day of the Dead

Daniela Mack (center) as Frida Kahlo. Photo by Cory Weaver/LA Opera

Folkloric and surreal, an operatic tale of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

“El último sueño de Frida y Diego”

by Bondo Wyszpolski

The glowing heat of an intense orange-and-blue set pervades “El último sueño de Frida y Diego” (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego), a two-act opera, in Spanish, by composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz. It’s a visual treat, and it’s being presented by LA Opera through Dec. 9 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

In recent years, painter Frida Kahlo has stepped away from the shadow of her muralist husband, Diego Rivera, to become the most famous Mexican, and Latin American, woman artist. Her colorful life, with its dark colors and light, tragedy and triumph, have turned out to be tailor-made for stories about her, and about Diego, long after her death.

Julie Taymor made a feature film about her in 2002, and she was the subject of an earlier opera, “Frida” (1991), by Robert Xavier Rodgríguez, a smaller, more intimate work that had the benefit of being staged outdoors at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach (Long Beach Opera, 2017) and accompanied by a photography exhibition.

“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego” is a co-production of San Diego Opera (where it had its world premiere two years ago) and San Francisco Opera, where it was performed last year. This is its third appearance, with several of the leads reprising their roles.

The story begins on the Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, 1957. It’s the year that Rivera dies, although Frida herself has been dead for three years. The opening scene reveals a sea of candles in what looks like a cross between a baroque church altar and a cemetery (it’s actually the latter). Diego has come there to remember his late wife. It’s the one day of the year when the corridor between the here and the hereafter is briefly opened and the deceased, if called, can ascend and visit their sorrowful loved ones.

Ana Maria Martínez as Catrina and Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo. Photo by Cory Weaver/LA Opera

The cemetery now rises a dozen feet, an unexpected and striking effect, to reveal Mictlán, the Aztec underworld, presided over by tribal-looking Catrina, the Keeper of the Dead (LA Opera veteran Ana María Martínez). She’s an imposing figure, wielding a staff that she often pounds into the floorboards for emphasis.

Although Frida has been beckoned, she’s not keen on going back. Her life in the realm of the living was too painful for her. As she says in the opera, “Why go back to the world? When in life I had two major accidents: the impact of a trolley, and the blow from meeting Diego Rivera.”

However, she’s encouraged to make the brief trip (24 hours is all one gets) by a drag queen named Leonardo (Key’mon W. Murrah), who resembles a genie but is actually a Greta Garbo impersonator, inspired by Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 film, “Queen Christina.” His presence here is a bit odd (why not have Leon Trotsky instead?), but on the other hand he’s the one who says that she’ll be able to paint without pain. Finally, Catrina pushes her out the door, so to speak. The one caveat, don’t embrace him… or the hurt will return.

Comparisons, albeit in reverse, with “Orpheus and Eurydice” are inevitable, and so there’s an element of the haunting and solemn that underlies the color and brightness. In that mythic tale, of course, the separation endures, but here, in “The Last Dream of Frida and Diego,” both figures descend to the Underworld together. And in that final scene (and forgive my hopscotching) there’s even a whiff of “Aïda,” when the two lovers, Radames and Aïda, are entombed alive albeit without the afterlife that seems to await Frida and Diego.

Key’mon W. Murrah as Leonardo. Photo by Cory Weaver/LA Opera

This is also one of those opera productions where the scenic design (Jorge Ballina), lighting (Victor Zapatero), and costumes (Eloise Kazan) clearly equal, if not surpass, the composition and even the performances, as fine as the latter may be. This is what’s achievable if you have the vision, a budget, and the time to pull it all together.

In fact, the production is so visually assertive that one may leave the opera house and not really remember the singing and the music (despite the commendable conducting of Lina González-Granados). It also doesn’t seem as if the opera has any standout arias, the sort of thing that makes audiences swoon over Puccini and Verdi. You will, however, remember the appearance of the chorus, those denizens of the Underworld decked out in the clothes of decades and centuries past, and vaguely reminiscent of the abductees descending from the mothership in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

In the second act, we see that Diego is struggling to begin a large mural, his muse or inspiration not answering his call. And then Frida arrives. One of the best scenes in the opera (and perhaps some of the best music as well) is when the couple stands alone against the blank canvas accompanied only by their shadows. They are enframed within the frame that outlines the entire stage. It’s ironic that this essentially colorless scene is also possibly the most poignant.

At Center, Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo, Ana Maria Martínez as Catrina, and Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera. Photo by Cory Weaver/LA Opera

This is in contrast to the tableau vivant scene enacting Rivera’s mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central” (1947), a cousin of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884-1886).

The blissful reunion continues with a visit to the Casa Azul, the blue house where Frida had lived and painted and had happy memories. Perhaps she will paint again! We are presented with several self-portraits, women in real-life poses and attire, standing within frames, with one of them, depicting 1944’s “The Broken Column” way off in the upper righthand corner. I think this is what the program notes are alluding to when they tell us “This production includes brief nudity.” Presumably the woman’s breasts were partially exposed, but I’d left my Hubble telescope at home so I couldn’t be sure. So why even alert us? When I think of nudity on an opera stage it’s more along the lines of Maria Ewing and her Dance of the Seven Veils (which was brief, but not partial).

That aside, the visual spectacle of all these Fridas is certainly eye-catching. These living, vivid allusions to her work give the work a biographical immediacy, one of the best (in the first act) inspired by the 1932 painting “Henry Ford Hospital.” In this rendition, threads of blood are being pulled from Frida’s body in several directions. There’s a bit of a tug of war here, and it’s one of the few instances where there’s any sort of poignant, viable action.

I mention this, because it illustrates the opera’s primary shortcoming. For example, the initial scene with the drag queen drags because there’s a lull in physical movement. I suppose the counter-argument is that any outside activity might distract from Frida and Leonardo’s verbal exchange (and here I must tip my hat to librettist Nilo Cruz, who earned a Pulitzer some years back for his fine play, “Anna in the Tropics”).

At center, Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera, and Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo. Photo by Cory Weaver/LA Opera

But there are other places as well where the physical “beat” doesn’t match the visual. We need to see more than just paintings within paintings. The director, Lorena Maza, and choreographer Ruby Tagle Willingham, could spice up the background a little, maybe with phantom women slow-waltzing with skeletons, that sort of thing. Any story about Frida and Diego, with its larger-than-life tempestuousness, its art and artifice, demands it. And a little more sensuality wouldn’t hurt (the Rodríguez “Frida” didn’t skimp on this).

I’m also thinking of other contemporary operas where the story doesn’t temporarily grind to a halt, some of them by Black composers, such as Terrence Blanchard (“Champion”) and Anthony Davis (“X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X”), infusing opera with a much-needed urgency that is also bringing in new audiences.

Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera and Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo are fine within the parameters they’re given, although Diego is a bit stodgy throughout (and certainly in comparison with the flamboyant Leonardo). Mack is impressive, but most memorable is Martínez as Catrina, in both voice and costume. The Keeper of the Dead is the liveliest one here.

All in all this is truly a satisfying work and a feather in the cap for its composer and librettist, and for cast and crew alike. I hope that the creative team behind it is encouraged by its acclaim and will endeavor to bring us another.

El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The Last Dream of Frida and Diego), presented by LA Opera, is on stage through Dec. 9 in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, in the Music Center. Performances, Sunday, Nov. 26, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Dec. 9, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets from about $39 to $324, but at least $100 for anything decent. Available at the box office, by phone, (213) 972-8001, or by visiting LAOpera.org. ER

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