IN CELEBRATION OF ITS FORTIETH anniversary season, Atlanta Opera kicked off its Discoveries series with Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Frida at the newly-minted Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center (seen Oct. 5). Frida had its premiere at Philadelphia’s Atlanta Music Festival in 1991 and was named by TheNew York Times as “Best Opera/Musical of 1991,” but subsequent performances in the U.S. were few and far between. The work re-emerged in 2015 at Michigan Opera Theatre, revitalized by Frida Kahlo’s increase in popularity as a cultural icon over the last decade or so. The surreal production starring soprano Catalina Cuervo (Frida Kahlo) and bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera (Diego Rivera) has now travelled to Cincinnati Opera and Florida Grand Opera.
Together, production director Jose Maria Condemi, scenic and costume designer Moníka Essen and choreographer Ricardo Aponte resurrected Rodriquez’s opera-lite opus creating a stimulating bi-lingual theatrical representation of key episodes within Frida Kahlo’s life. Elements of her paintings (The Wounded Deer, What the Water Game Me, The Broken Column and others) are also incorporated within the brilliant bi-level set, most prominently a giant anatomical heart at center stage with arteries and veins that extend outward like tree branches. Projections, painted canvases, and traditional Mexican costumes educate us about Frida’s work as a painter while the sporadic appearance of masked Cavaleras occurs to enact Frida’s state of mind while creating her wild, inimitable paintings.
Conductor Jorge Parodi returned to Atlanta to conduct a small mariachi-style ensemble that included Mexican marimba and accordion. Rodriguez’s use of made-up folk songs including Diego’s “Soy el oso negro” are presented alongside traditional piñata songs such as “Hora y fuego”. But he also borrows the musical language of Sondheim, Gershwin, and Weill to create a musical landscape that sounds through-composed and at times incidental, incorporating spoken dialogue and forsaking formal arias. Dance—both classical ballet and native dance courtesy of the Alma Mexicana Dancers—was a crucial element conveying a sense of place within this Frida as well.
Colombia-born soprano Catalina Cuervo, last heard in Atlanta as the title character within Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, navigated a disjunct and low-lying vocal line best-suited to a lyric mezzo, yet was so convincing as Frida that the audience didn’t seem to notice or care. Her rendition of Frida was unabashed and clearly delineated. Ricardo Herrera sang a formidable Diego, his music more idiomatic to his lavish voice. Supporting roles were bestowed up members of the Atlanta Opera Studio as well as some stellar local singers including soprano Maria Valdes, a former Adler Fellow at Lyric Opera of Chicago, who offered the finest singing of the evening in the supporting role of Cristina Kahlo. Studio artist Andres Acosta as Alejandro/Leon Trotsky turned heads with his ebullient tenor voice while mezzo-soprano Gina Perregrino, always in good voice, impressed with her dramatic interpretation of Lupe Marín, Rivera’s ex-wife.