Weak libretto undermines strong music and compelling story in Florida Grand Opera’s “Before Night Falls”
The contemporary opera Before Night Falls, which opened Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami, contains many of the ingredients for an effective stage production.
There’s a charismatic hero, a murderous villain and a strong musical score that runs from ravishing lyricism to brutal violence. But the work, presented by Florida Grand Opera, is undermined by a dull, trite, and meandering libretto that botches the job of turning the life of a fascinating, courageous man into an effective opera.
The opera, composed by Jorge Martín, is based on the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban poet and novelist whose unhidden homosexuality and defiant decision to publish abroad got him into trouble with the Castro regime.
After serving time in the infamous prison of El Morro Castle, Arenas escapes in the Mariel boat lift of 1980 and winds up in New York. In the end, dying of AIDS, his last act of heroism is to work up the strength to finish his memoir, a testament to the oppression, lies and brutality of the Castro government, before he commits suicide.
This should be great material for a series of dramatic scenes from Arenas’ life. But the libretto, co-written by Martín and Dolores M. Koch, is slow, unfocused and full of unnecessary scenes and pointless chatter. We expect communists to speak in clichés (“Death to all traitors! Long live the revolution!”). But did members of Havana’s literary class really make such pompous speeches to each other in conversation? “If what we read makes us dangerous, if what we write makes us dangerous,” says one character, “then let us be dangerous in the name of liberty.”
In the slow-to-get-going opening act, we have to sit through Arenas’ mother, ably sung by the soprano Elizabeth Caballero, deliver a dull aria about the need to never give up hope and to remember his village. (“Promise me you will never forget this land where you were born.”) At El Morro Castle, the chorus of prisoners gets no better lines than, “We didn’t know what freedom was until they took it away,” and “Life without freedom is no life at all.”
Rather than distilling the drama into a few key scenes, the opera lurches from place to place, depriving the work of a strong dramatic structure. We’re in New York and then Arenas’ village, then his home, a rebel camp, the beach, his Havana apartment and then on a street and then back on the beach and then in the prison and then the interrogation room and back in his apartment and then a government office, and that’s before we even get to New York. The dramatic high points get buried in all the talking.
That’s too bad because there is so much good music here. Martín’s score is eclectic in the best sense, sensitive to character, setting and situation, flexible enough to portray the beauty of the Cuban landscape, the tender parting of two friends and the busy industry of Arenas at his typewriter.
From the prelude, as the violins ascend over chords in the winds hat are both serious and sensuous, the music is immediately engaging. In some passages, particularly in the end as Arenas dies, delicate string and wind writing produces textures and harmonies with a Late Romantic shimmer. There are touches of Cuban atmosphere, but it’s done subtly and without a trace of kitsch, with Martín suggesting the island’s musical styles with a hint of percussion and a few turns of phrase. Unlike many contemporary composers, Martín can write a tune.
In the communist rebel camp, as the revolutionaries celebrate victory, there’s a swaggering brass band quality to the music, its primary color harmonies recalling Shostakovich in his ambiguous celebrations of Soviet triumphs. As the camp scene darkens with the execution of a traitor and threats of more to come, this triumphant anthem twists into something darker, as sinister dissonances creep into the music.
The orchestra, conducted by Christopher Allen, gave a vigorous, richly textured performance.
Martín can write movingly, as in the trio in which Arenas and his friends lament the fate of Cuba, and in the duet between Arenas and his friend Lázaro. This was one of the musical highlights: as Lázaro, sung with smooth, elegant tone by the tenor Michael Kuhn, says goodbye to Arenas over a pulsing, restless accompaniment in the orchestra, the music modulates and deepens as Arenas joins in.
Also contributing outstanding singing was Caballero. She had two roles, singing Arenas’ mother and singing The Moon, a muse who encourages him in his writing. Her voice soared in the latter role, effortlessly bringing forth luxuriant tones in some of Martín’s most graceful and alluring music, ably supported by mezzo-soprano Melissa Fajardo as the other muse-figure, The Sea.
As Arenas, the baritone Elliot Madore gave a stellar performance. In the opening scene, in the Manhattan apartment, hollow-eyed and limping, he displayed the iron will inside the failing body. Unfortunately, thanks to the weaknesses of the libretto, little of Arenas’s resilient life-force—the joy in sex, friendship and literature–came through in a role in which lamentation and self-pity, no matter how well justified, were the primary notes.
Madore was a tireless performer, singing with vigor through a work in which he rarely got a break. He sang with stentorian power in his defiance of the communist authorities, as he attempted to shame his old revolutionary comrade Victor.
But his Arenas was no plaster saint, and in his aria upon arriving in prison, he captured the humanity, fear and depression of a man at his lowest point. And in a role that could be an invitation to overact, he kept his performance within realistic bounds. Forced to humiliate himself to get permission to leave Cuba by displaying a “gay” walk, he does so and subtly communicates the atrocity of a such a demand.
The revolutionary leader Victor, sung by the bass-baritone Calvin Griffin, is in a way more subtly drawn than Arenas. Neither overwritten nor overacted, he is made more malevolent by being more believable, a subtle portrait of a ruthless man who respects Arenas and his work but is willing to ruin lives and to kill “to protect revolution.”
As Ovidio, the tenor Dinyar Vania manages an effective and convincing transformation from elegant literary aristocrat to hollow-eyed prisoner broken by the authorities. Arenas’ friend Pepe, who betrays him to the police, sung by the tenor Javier Abreu, comes off from the start as frivolous and weasely, laying the groundwork for his treason to his friend.
Stage director David Gately brought a convincing hand to his portrayal of the events. Choreographed scenes of Arenas and his friends’ sexual freedom contrasted starkly with the brutal, realistic violence of the interrogation room.
Particularly creative were the sets from the original production by Fort Worth Opera. Actual props and furniture were minimal–a few tables, a park bench, a bed. But behind these simple objects were projected images that not only provided an effective backdrop but that contributed considerably to the power of the work.
There were fast-moving aerial films of the Cuban countryside, as Arenas and his friends lamented the fate of their homeland. There was the televised image of Arenas’ literary mentor Ovidio, with his dead eyes and monotone voice, confessing his sins against the revolution. The famous Che Guevara image, which was never a real symbol of defiance but more a commentary on the ignorance and insensitivity of the person displaying it on a T-shirt, looked particularly malevolent looming in a giant projection over an interrogation room.
The financial risk to Florida Grand Opera of mounting a contemporary work was apparent in the blocks of empty seats opening night—seats that likely would have been occupied had the company instead scheduled its umpteenth production of Carmen or La Bohème.
It’s hard to imagine what more FGO could have done to sell tickets. Few operas could have more contemporary relevance to South Florida. And in the weeks before opening night, there were substantial preview articles in South Florida Classical Review, the Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, South Florida Gay News, Gay City News and El Nuevo Herald. NBC 6 did an interview with Elizabeth Caballero.
Even with as opera as deeply flawed as this, FGO deserves credit for taking a risk. As with previous productions of contemporary works, FGO general director Susan Danis is attempting to broaden the company’s audience and give less familiar works the chance to be performed.
Before Night Falls runs through Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.