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San Francisco Becomes an Opera Capital

Frank’s partnership with Cruz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, has been fruitful in the concert hall, but this is their first opera. As a team, though, they are naturals: his libretto poetically concise, her setting of it flowingly dramatic, with generous, singer-friendly melodies and an ear for the musicality of language on the level of syllables and words.

Their subject is extremely familiar — the love of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera — but the treatment is less biographical and more mythic. This is a work that deals in the broad strokes of opera, and seems to tip its hat to the earliest known story in the art form: Orpheus and Eurydice. But here, instead of the hero traveling to the underworld to retrieve a lost love, the protagonist journeys to the land of the living. In both cases, though, a creative spirit is required to cross borders, and there are dire consequences for any missteps.

In approaching his characters this way, Cruz avoids the pitfalls of retreading the well-known ups and downs of Kahlo and Rivera’s relationship. Instead, they are treated as archetypes, for the better. And rather than tell a life story — which in opera tends to result in episodic, undramatic works — Cruz hews to classical unities, with a focused plot that unfolds on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Diego — the baritone Alfredo Daza, a quiet and low-lying presence that grew as the night unfolded — begs Frida to return to him three years after her death. But Frida (the often affectingly aching mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack), in the Aztec underworld, doesn’t want to revisit the place of her emotional and physical agony. In the end, she is persuaded by a fellow artist, a young actor named Leonardo, sung with creamy richness by the countertenor Jake Ingbar.

She is lured by the hope of going back for her art, rather than for Diego — whom she cannot touch, she is warned by the Keeper of the Dead, Catrina (the soprano Yaritza Véliz, the work’s comic and musical highlight), or she will be newly barraged with memories of pain. Of course she touches him, in a reconciliatory embrace, but she is once again saved by painting. And, as the Day of the Dead comes to an end, he pleads to the gods to let him join her in the underworld, where they remain together forever.

Frank’s score, like the libretto, mostly avoids obvious choices, with only flashes of traditional Mexican music. But the production, by Lorena Maza, is sensitively specific to place, supported by Jorge Ballina’s scenic design and Eloise Kazan’s costumes, on a stage set up like a terraced cemetery decorated for the Day of the Dead. The action takes place within a gilded frame that surrounds the proscenium; focusing things even further are shutter-like panels colored with a rich blue redolent of Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul.

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