Critic's Pick: 'Frida' by Cincinnati Opera

Artist Frida Kahlo is the star of the opera's second production of its 97th season.

click to enlarge Catalina Cuervo as Frida Kahlo in the Cincinnati Opera's production of "Frida" - PHOTO: PHILIP GROSHONG
Photo: Philip Groshong
Catalina Cuervo as Frida Kahlo in the Cincinnati Opera's production of "Frida"
Frida Kahlo lived a life of vibrant primary color. Virtually every moment of the Mexican painter’s existence was tempestuous. Her deeply personal images vividly expressed her passions, her fears, her anxieties and her joys. That made her the perfect subject for an opera, an art form in which characters are often larger than life. You can see the result by attending composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez’s Frida, the second production of Cincinnati Opera’s 97th season. 

Enter the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater and you’re immediately confronted with a brilliant red drape, a pair of red violins and a red squeezebox. Three performers skulk onstage wearing calaveras, masks that represent human skulls (frequently associated with the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead). Using the musical instruments, they weave through Frida — because her life constantly ping-ponged between highs and lows, joy and longing. A horrendous bus accident nearly killed the 18-year-old Kahlo in 1925. She suffered constant physical pain for 30 years (she died at 47). Death’s shadow was her close companion for the balance of her tumultuous life, but it never diminished her fervent spirit.

Moníka Essen’s scenic design represents that spirit at center stage with an immense, crimson human heart topped with a tangle of arteries. Projected images show both Kahlo’s paintings and her emotions: a close-up of an eye occasionally sheds tears; a sensual shoulder and female breast are torn asunder and pierced with spikes following her accident. We see her in an immobilizing plaster “corset,” hospitalized for two years recovering from her devastating injuries — and beginning to paint. 

Essen’s intensely colored costume designs, especially Kahlo’s eye-popping red-and-yellow Mexican dresses and ravishing floral headpieces, constantly and insistently reflect her passion for her homeland. But traditional dresses for dancers and evening wear for others also enhance visual impact.

Frida requires a pair of larger-than-life singers. Soprano Catalina Cuervo delivers a high-voltage performance — acting, speaking and singing — as Kahlo. Much of the role is in English, with occasional snatches of Spanish. Cuervo is riveting as she delivers monologues of Kahlo’s powerful beliefs and sings Rodríguez’s complex score, featuring a libretto by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz and replete with Mexican and Spanish rhythms and even a few nods to Broadway show tunes. To underscore Kahlo’s singular personality, the composer wrote much of her music in three-quarter time, while other characters sing in double-time. That’s a daunting vocal challenge, but Cuervo is more than up to it.

Bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera plays Kahlo’s lover and husband, the eminent Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Twenty years Kahlo’s senior and a notorious womanizer, he initially encourages her career as a painter. Before long they are married. His politics and beliefs are as passionate and opinionated as hers. Their tempestuous marriage simultaneously fuels and frustrates their creativity. Herrera, who strongly resembles Diego, forcefully portrays the painter, who comfortably navigates the art world in the United States — until his communist beliefs run afoul of his capitalist patrons.

Kahlo was a unique human being. Rivera once characterized her as “acid and tender.” She was strong and willful yet also sensitive and caring. She refused to give in to physical pain or personal disappointment. Her brilliant mind could have enabled numerous career paths — before the accident she planned to study medicine. Through her painting, she dug deeply into her soul and created images that uniquely represented her raw psyche, her beliefs, her very existence. This production distills Kahlo’s essence in a deeply moving two-and-a-half-hour performance.

Kahlo was fiercely her own woman. She yearned to have children, but her injuries and lifelong poor health meant that was impossible. Yet, as her life comes down to its celebratory close in this opera — laughing at death (those calaveras return and finally win out) she sings “Viva la vida, alegria” (“Long live life, joy”) — we hear that “she gave birth to herself.” That sums up Kahlo’s essence quite succinctly: a flash of dazzling, brilliant red, streaking along a singular, ardent path to individuality and greatness.

Her passion for “love, sex, cigarettes and tequila” inspired an opera that’s definitely R-rated. Of course, it’s all in the service of telling Kahlo’s extraordinary story, but this production does cross boundaries — nudity, sexuality and outspoken values — that are more often implied than portrayed on operatic stages. That makes Frida an especially vivid and compelling work that has clearly struck a resonant note with local opera fans. 


Tickets are scarce for the remaining performances of FRIDA through July 8. For availability and more information, visit cincinnatiopera.org.

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