Colors go out in the world: ‘Frida’, reviewed

Portland Opera’s summer production reveals fresh, flashy new classic

Despite its three-decade lifespan, Frida remains fresh and flashy. Plenty of sex, angst and art (and a little pot) propel it into contemporary times. Above all, the intricate music and sharp-witted libretto make the story come fully alive — and I suspect, will keep the opera breathing for decades.

The opera has been staged and praised throughout Europe and the United States, premiering in 1991 at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. It opened in Portland June 22 for a four-day sold-out run, though the June 26 and June 27 performances were cancelled due to the heat wave.

Portland Opera's 2021 production of Frida. Photo by Trace Downen.
Portland Opera’s 2021 production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

Frida marked the first time in 16 months since pandemic restrictions began that Portland Opera invited a live audience. Brimming with anticipation of experiencing live music again, opera-goers sat outdoors, socially distanced in pods from one another in front of OMSI’s Jordan Schnitzer open-air stage. The waxing gibbous moon emerged from clear skies as the opera concluded 95 minutes after it started. Viva Fridas! rang out, as did bravos! in proper and predictable Portland fashion.

The opera deserved all the kudos it received even if the singers were miked in musical-performance fashion and the MAX and freight trains tuned in intermittently with thunderous voices and clanging bells.

Staged minimalistically by director Andreas Mitisek (in 2019 he directed Portland Opera’s transgender piece As One), and lit dramatically with changing backdrops of artwork by Frida Kahlo and on-again-off-again husband Diego Rivera, the opera fully integrated visual art with music, story and characters. The six-member cast gave solid performances, including the four singers, each of whom sang several parts, other than stars Kahlo (soprano Catalina Cuervo) and Rivera (baritone Bernardo Bermudez).

Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in Portland Opera's production of Frida. Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in Portland Opera’s production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

Unconventional heroine

In these days of multiculturalism and manifold sexual identities, Kahlo, a bold brave bisexual Mexican artist who died at 47 in 1954, reigns as a heroine of the unconventional. The opera does a lot to make us care about her, aside from her unconventionalism. It gives Kahlo many dimensions, allowing us to see her as a complex and deep-feeling and deep-thinking, sometimes sassy and sarcastic, human being rather than as a restless, pain-tortured, lovelorn art icon. “The original creative team made sure to include Kahlo’s sense of humor, potent sexuality, and radical politics. They avoided portraying the kinds of noble victimhood that too often over-sentimentalizes retellings of Kahlo’s eventful life,” Oregon Arts Watch’s Brett Campbell wrote last week in his piece, “Beyond Fridolatry.”

Catalina Cuervo in the title role of Portland Opera's production of Frida. Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo in the title role of Portland Opera’s production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

And what about that mustache and unibrow that confirm her outsider status? Those were there. Her German-Jewish father tells Rivera when he proposes marriage in the late 1920s that “she’s not pretty, but she’s very intelligent. And she’s a devil.” Frida’s razor-sharp intelligence and artistic sensibilities (“I paint the secrets inside,” she sings) differentiate her from so many see-through space-head opera heroines. Those qualities keep her character and the opera moving on a high plane. 

If you attended the opera to learn more about her art, you will. Why does she like to paint monkeys so much, for example? When they’re around they comfort her, keep her “sane,” and pick up her hem to look at her, she explains. Why does she paint “The Wounded Deer” in 1946 with nine arrows piercing its coat? She sees herself as a cat, with nine lives, thick-skinned and hard to kill off. And why so many self-portraits? A will to survive.

Frida traces much of Kahlo’s dramatic and anguish-filled life, not including her childhood. The huge part is sung by soprano Cuervo, made up to look uncannily like Kahlo. She sings and acts as if she were Kahlo, or what I imagine her to be. The opera brings along Kahlo’s bigger-than-life lover/husband/artist Rivera (she married him twice) for the tumultuous ride, making him a co-star and recognizing his significant influence on Kahlo. Silky-voiced baritone Bermudez as the magnetic Rivera maintains his boyishness and busy extra-marital sex life throughout, characteristics that Kahlo detests, and for which she often forgives him — though she was neither nun nor saint.

But she’s the star

Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in Portland Opera's production of Frida. Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo as Frida and Bernardo Bermudez as Diego in Portland Opera’s production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

Rivera and his art overshadowed Kahlo in the earlier parts of their lives from the 1920s through the 1940s, but the opera, of course, gives Kahlo the starring edge. The opening scene recounts her horrifying bus accident that crippled her at 18 years old and confined her to a wheelchair. Working on her own art, she moves on to being captivated by Rivera’s charms and epic painting talents, and later, by an exiled and bespectacled Leon Trotsky’s intellectual afternoon advances. She falls into women’s arms (“it’s always a woman who knows where I need to be kissed”), submits reluctantly to a divorce from Rivera, and finally, believes in her paintings and in herself. In the end, she remarries dear Diego, the love of her life, and her art continues to live on.

Kahlo’s gutsy chaotic life is a natural fit for passionate, even political, opera. Kahlo and Rivera were involved in Communist politics, and for a while, Rivera was championed by the working class. In 1933, the Rockefellers hired him to paint a mural, “Man at the Crossroads,”  for New York’s Rockefeller Center, and Rivera painted Lenin into the mural. It was destroyed at the same time that Kahlo miscarried, and shortly after, the two returned to Mexico.

As much ground as Frida covers in 95 minutes, the opera is far from superficial or light. It has the makings of a classic with a long shelf life. The piece is tightly constructed with Robert X.  Rodriguez’s brilliant and witty mix of folk and classical music played in the wings by a small “band” of Portland Opera musicians. Conductor Andres Cladera, in his PO debut, was too humble to take a bow, barely peeking out from behind the curtains. The music matched Kahlo’s artistic style, imbued with classic European and Mexican folk influences and themes. The score also reflected her stormy inner life, which can seem as surreal as Salvador Dali’s.

The poetic yet linear libretto by playwright Migdalia Cruz based on Hilary Blecher’s book is delivered in Spanish at times, in English at others, and in straight talk off and on. (There are subtitles in English and Spanish.) All of the opera’s components work together, but at times Frida feels more like a musical than an opera. The quality of the singers’ voices reminds us this is opera. Like Kahlo’s art, “its colors go out in the world.”

Catalina Cuervo as Frida, Adrian Rosales-Casillas as Calaveras, and Rachel Hauge as Calaveras in Portland Opera's production of Frida. Photo by Trace Downen.
Catalina Cuervo as Frida, Adrian Rosales-Casillas as Calaveras, and Rachel Hauge as Calaveras in Portland Opera’s production of ‘Frida’. Photo by Trace Downen.

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About the author

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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