From the Conductor - El último sueño de Frida y Diego

Apr 17, 2024

Gabriela Lena Frank weaves the beautifully delicate fabric of her opera with a needle dipped in the 20th century’s harmonic landscape. This choice resonates powerfully with the subject of our story, as if we travelled in time with her to meet Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Avoiding a common tendency in contemporary opera to have historical figures serve as canvases upon which the composer can experiment style and form, Frank invests her creative forces into an acute character study of Frida and Diego. Hence all the magical dimension of Mexican folklore in the opera becomes not a far away fairyland, but as believable a realm as their Casa Azul.

One of the distinctive pillars of 20th century harmony is any chord that is built on intervals of fourths, fifths, tritones, and consequently seconds, in opposition to the traditional thirds and sixths. Schoenberg, who introduced these chords (in the beginning of his Opus 9), exploits their technical and lyrical potential, opening the door to the Viennese expressionism of the 1920s & 30s. Towards the middle of the century they caught on different usages around the world, be it lyrically in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, galopping forward in the finale of his Dance Suite, or exploited for their bare sonority by Villa-Lobos, in his Choros, bringing to life the vast territorial expanses of the Brazilian plains. A thrilling example lies in Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia, where the composer injects these chords into a virtual stampede of the whole orchestra. Frank, by contrast, applies them gently against a backdrop of more traditional minor chords, resulting in the eeriness that shrouds the scene from the beginning of El último sueño de Frida y Diego, at dawn, on the Mexican Day of the Dead. These harmonies seep through the forlorn phrases of the chorus, engulfing the stage in a requiem Mass of sorts, as the living sing to their departed loved ones. The chorus dissipates into a shallow orchestral texture that quietly reiterates a motive upon which Diego will yearn for his Friduchita and Frida damn the day she met Diego. A series of rhapsodic woodwind solos linger on, recalling the transitions between songs in Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs, where a change of key is reached by a meandering line passed along from instrument to instrument, like a rivulet that guides us gently to a new scene. However there’s an agony implicit in the constant semitone trills of flute, clarinet, and oboe, which will soon loom over the orchestral coloration of Frida’s part. This brings to mind the ominous and meditative flute solos in the first movement of Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony. They were conceived the moment Shostakovich happened upon a Zen flautist who was touring the Soviet Union in 1937 (curiously the same year Trotsky would leave Stalin’s Russia for Mexico and encounter Diego and Frida!).
In Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, the libretto, adapted by Eric Crozier from a Maupassant story, remains colloquial throughout, allowing the vocal lines themselves to give a strong color and intonation to the characters’ expressions, rather than a florid text. This is what Nilo Cruz and Frank achieve so exceptionally with the Spanish language, in an approach which I feel does great justice to the compatibility of Spanish with the operatic voice and diction. In Albert Herring, Britten uses a simple major triad when introducing his protagonist, allowing Herring’s full name to be cleanly announced and musically emboldened, before the character even says a word. The Vicar enunciates Albert Herring’s full name for the first time over an E major triad, dividing the two syllables of Herring amongst D sharp and E natural. And so, in our opera Diego Rivera is greeted by one of the villagers on an F sharp major chord, which Frank briefly alternates with its chromatic neighbour, an F major chord, making the word Rivera pivot between both (from C natural to C sharp), as if Diego’s identity were vast enough to occupy two keys. A further jump to A minor takes place once Diego projects his first line, the same key in which Frida will say her first words as well, giving an atavistic unity to the characters despite their profound differences. Therefore, Britten’s introductory device is transformed by Frank into a vector through which she sketches a strong and portentous first impression of Diego Rivera, immediately tying him to Frida.

Now Frida, what a role! Her melodic line is permanently fractured by asymmetrical rhythms, strangely mechanical at times, which give tangibility to her pain, to her lopsided wounds, to her trauma and rancor towards Diego. The complex interval leaps in her melody bring to mind Alban Berg’s expressionist opera Lulu, only without the extremes of register, as if Frida’s lack of comfort within the melodic contour were a permanent trait of hers, of her troubled being, rather than a product of the composer’s psychoanalytic portrait. Her only respite is in the soothing presence of Leonardo, the young dead actor who persuades her to return to the world of the living. This gentle countertenor role (male singer who often sings in falsetto, although the term can also include tenors who use their chest voices in extraordinarily high registers), renders homage to a voice-type mostly forgotten in the history of opera from its heyday in the 16th century, when women were not allowed to sing in church liturgy, all the way up until it was revived the mid-20th century by, most notably, Alfred Deller, for whom Britten wrote the role of Oberon in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The timbre of Oberon’s falsetto merges with the celesta (keyboard instrument with small bells instead of strings) and glockenspiel. Frank too chooses to highlight the countertenor’s inimitable timbre (pairing it with vibraphone), rather than, as is often the case, opting for the potential virtuosity in a powerful chested voice, like Orff does with his roasting swan in the "Olim lacus colueram" of his Carmina Burana, whilst the male chorus roars and salivates over his blazing flesh. In fact this type of ritualistic exchange between chorus and a main character, which one finds in Stravinsky’s Les Noces, is given new form by Frank when Catrina, our coloratura soprano, and Mictlan’s guardian of the dead, summons Frida from the underground. The chorus obsessively repeats Catrina’s incantations, lured under her spell, in a Stravinskian mixed-meter above a jagged, syncopated orchestra.
I deeply admire composers who don’t allow themselves to be clipped by an exclusive school or tendency, but whose musical talent yearns for any fruits that can be picked from the work of their precursors. Not only does one learn infinitely more about a new piece when detecting its allusions and sources of inspiration, but in turn, one rediscovers its precursors as new light is shed on aspects of their composition. As artists, Frida and Diego most certainly achieve this, and so does Gabriela Lena Frank.

— Ilyich Rivas

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