Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Frida Kahlo is one of the most recognizable faces in the world. Certainly, the most recognizable painter. Her short and painful life was extraordinarily eventful, and there are numerous biographical works documenting the details.

Composer Robert Xavier Rodgriguez’s opera, Frida had its premiere 1991 and is, surprisingly, only seeing its local premiere this year, courtesy of Long Beach Opera (LBO). Performed al fresco at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach and, for one performance, at Grand Performances in Downtown Los Angeles, the choice was an apt one during our comfortable summer evenings.

Rodriguez’s score is eclectic, sprinkled with plenty of Latin-based rhythms and styles—tangos, mariachi, and folk music all appear, along with musical quotations like the “Internationale.” But the heart of the score is reminiscent of the more classically-influenced Broadway composers like Weill, Bernstein, and Sondheim. The operatic influences seem to come from the better mid-20th Century melodists, like Menotti and Floyd.

Hilary Blecher’s book, and Migdalia Cruz’s lyrics and monologues (I’m not really sure how those duties are apportioned.) tell Frida’s life story in a series of 13 scenes. Like most dramatic biographies which try to cover an entire life, the episodic nature of the storytelling and the quick moves from event to event mean that we rarely get below the surface of the characters. This makes it difficult for an audience to connect emotionally, particularly when the characters are as complex and contradictory as Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera.

Certainly, there are moments that truly work. The surreal representation of the bus accident which would almost kill Frida and leave her in pain for the rest of her life is beautifully realized. But much of the story is related in a realistic manner with little poetry in the lyrics. By the time we reach Frida’s second act relationship with the exiled Leon Trotsky, what should be fascinating has become slightly tedious.

The libretto is in Spanish and English with English supertitles. Left untranslated are several of Frida’s more colorful emotional outbursts. The knowing laughter from the audience clearly proves that expletives are the first words one picks up in a foreign language.

The opera was designed for a company of 10-plus singers and dancers. LBO’s production reduces the cast to 6:  Frida and Diego, along with a hard-working group of 4 singers all playing 4 to 6 individual roles, filling in for the dancers, and moving the scenic elements. They accomplish all of this with little apparent strain.

Laura Virella is a vibrant Frida with an attractive, plush sound. Bernardo Bermudez is a more elegant singer than one might expect as the proletarian Rivera, but he and Virella are compelling in their 2 duets. Alejandra Martinez, Joanna Ceja, Jonathan Lacayo and David Castillo do terrific work in their multiple roles.

As the performances are outdoors, the singers wear body mics, which, at the performance I attended were balanced properly for the vocals, though Kristof Van Grysperre’s orchestra felt a little muted. And, of course, there are the occasional sirens and low-flying helicopters, which are the price for outdoor performances in any urban setting.

The bigger issue for the Grand Performances space is the pond, which sits between the audience and the stage. While lovely, it places the performers at an extreme distance from even the first row of the audience, making that emotional connection even more difficult to achieve.

Museum of Latin American Art & Grand Performances    June 17, 2017 – June 25, 2017