Mark Gresham | 07 OCT 2019
Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a Mexican holiday that evolved from indigenous cultural practices of central and southern Mexico. After Spanish conquest, with Catholicism in attendance, what had been a month-long summer Aztec observance gradually became associated with October 31, November 1, and November 2 to coincide with the Western Christian days All Saints’ Eve (Hallowe’en), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.
Death is considered a natural part of the human cycle in Mexican culture. Over the course of three-day holiday, people gather to remember and pray for family members and friends who have died. A central part of Día de Muertos is the creation of private altars, known as ofrendas, which honor the deceased. They adorned by visitors with calaveras (sugar skulls), marigolds, favorite foods beverages of the deceased, and artifacts that have owned by or represent the departed.
From this cultural perspective, Robert Xavier Rodriguez’ opera, Frida, is at its core an ofrenda honoring the memory of Frida Kahlo. In Saturday’s performance by The Atlanta Opera, this was evidenced not only by the set design, which includes significant imagery from Khalo’s paintings, but the arching structure of the opera itself, which begins with her artist husband Diego Rivera laying a bundle of marigolds in front of her portrait and end with his drinking a shot of alcohol – both symbolic, honorific gestures found in Día de Muertos.
A group of muetre, wearing calavera masks and dressed in festive Mexican clothing, appear at various points throughout. Their character is at once morbid and humorous. In Mexican culture, death is viewed plainly as a natural part of the cycle of life. So there is a kind of acceptance which allows for laughing at death and sometimes with it. The hovering presence of Death, portrayed by the muertos, permeates the opera, as does sex, its close psychological companion.
The holiday is celebrated outside of Mexico too, but in Mexico it is designated a national holiday, adding a layer of cultural and political nationalism to its meanings. That, too, is an important part of the drama which comes alive in the opera’s episodic scenes from Kahlo’s life.
At the center of ot all are soprano Catalina Cuervo in the title role of Frida Khalo and bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera as Diego Rivera, the famous muralist with whom her life was intertwined. Together they lead a cast of 13, more than half of whom play multiple roles, plus dancers.
The striking, fiery Curevo is essential to this “Frida.” In a recent audio interview with EarRelevant’s John Lemley, Tomer Zvulun, The Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director, stated how the opera is, for he company, a vehicle for Cuervo and that “we wouldn’t want to be doing this opera without her.” Cuervo was an on-target critical hit for the company in their 2017 production of Maria de Buenos Aires. She achieves the same here in her portray of the complex, colorful and tragic Frida.
Herrera’s intense portrayal of the 20 years older Rivera provided the focal counterpoint to Frida, a relationship which both impelled her career as an artist and represented the ever-present obstacle of machismo Mexican society that would parallel the physical constraints and pain caused the severe injuries from a bus crash that permanently changed her life. Both Cuervo and Herrera truly inhabit their roles.
The 1991 opera’s libretto by Hilary Blecher (book) and Migdalia Cruz (lyrics and monologues) is similar in manner to the 2002 American film directed by Julie Taymor in that it is an episodic treatment of Kahlo’s life but preceded the movie by a decade. The opera follows Frida’s life and artistic career beginning with her prep school days, the pivotal bus accident, her intense and troubled marriage, and finally her physical and emotional decline and death at age 47. Across the story’s span, the muertos hover, in anticipation of finally taking her.
The composer, San Antonio native Robert Xavier Rodriguez, has been critically described as a “Mexican Kurt Weill” for his use of populist styles in Frida. He makes good use of Mexican folk and popular idioms and also parody snapshots of ’30s American jazz, appropriating whatever style is needed for the moment. But like Frida Kahlo herself, whose own cultural heritage is informed by both European and indigenous Meso-American influences, the overall opera by the Texas-born American composer decidedly exudes a pride inits Mexican character in an honest way.
Three more performances of Frida remain, this coming Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (October 9, 11 & 13) at the Byers Theatre, Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. ■