Review: Daniela Mack, San Francisco Opera Chorus Shine in “El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego”, San Francisco Opera, June 17, 2023

The final opera to be presented in the San Francisco Opera’s centennial season, “The Last Dream of Frida and Diego” by California composer Gabriela Lena Frank and Cuban librettist Nilo Cruz, is the first opera in company history to be performed in Spanish.

The opera is a co-production with the San Diego Opera, where the world premiere took place in October, 2022. The opera’s surreal story embraces the deep history of Mexico’s Dia de las Muertas. The production was notable for eye-catching, color-drenched sets and for the effective use of the chorus as a central feature of the dramatic action.

The opera’s central figure is Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Seven decades after her death in 1954, Kahlo continues to be regarded as one of the most important artists of the mid-20th century. Her prickly relationship with her equally famous husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, has long been a subject of intense interest by admirers of both Kahlo and Rivera. Central to the drama are encounters between the still living Diego and the deceased Frida as part of the Dia of 1957, the year of Rivera’s death.

Daniela Mack’s Frida Kahlo

Portraying Kahlo was Argentina-born mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack. Her Kahlo is the central figure in the opera, both dramatically and vocally. Mack demonstrated command of the the role’s vocal demands, notably in Mack’s lower range. Mack’s acting demonstrated Kahlo’s emotional state, especially the intense physical pain that the artist suffered.

This was my second opportunity to hear Mack foray into contemporary opera, since she created the role of the youthful Jacqueline Kennedy in a David Little Opera [World Premiere Review: “JFK”, a Fort Worth Fantasy – April 23, 2016].

[Below: Daniela Mack (center) as Frida Kahlo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In the fifteen years since I was present for Mack’s unexpected assumption of a principal Mozart role at the San Francisco Opera [Review: An “Idomeneo” Surprise in San Francisco – Daniela Mack’s Princely Idamante, October 26, 2008], I have seen Mack perform in operas in musical styles as diverse as those of Handel [Review: Handel’s “Semele” Excels with Amanda Forsythe, Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader, Opera Philadelphia, September 19, 2019] Rossini [Review: Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Audun Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013 and Review: Santa Fe Opera’s Delightful “Italian Girl in Algiers” – July 25, 2018] and Berlioz [Review: “Beatrice and Benedict”, Seattle Opera Reinvents Berlioz’ Opera – February 24, 2018].

[Below: Daniela Mack (center) as Frida Kahlo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

See also Rising Stars: An Interview with Daniela Mack.

Alfredo Daza’s Diego Rivera

Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza, who had been a San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow in the late 1990s, gave a sturdy account of the muralist Rivera. I had previously praised Daza’s performance as Zurga [Review: Los Angeles Opera’s Beautifully Sung “Pearl Fishers” – October 15, 2017]. The role of Rivera allows Daza to present himself as a sympathetic figure.

[Below: Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Of more significance to the way that “Frida y Diego” presents its subject matter than even the scenes in which Diego and Frida both appear, are the images used in the production that are derived from one of Rivera’s most famous murals.

Diego Rivera’s Mural: “The Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Park (Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central)

Relevant concepts derived from Rivera’s Alameda Park mural include Diego RIvera’s vision of the physical appearance of Catrina, the supernatural figure that exists between the worlds of the dead and the living.

[Below: from Right to Left, Catrina, Frida and the young Diego; edited image, from “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central“, located in Diego Rivera Mural Museo, Mexico City .]

Another relevant concept is Rivera’s strong belief that Mexican history was the result of the contributions of men and women from many cultures and socioeconomic classes, rather than simply the members of the ruling elite. Rivera’s mural, showing persons from a range of occupations over the long expanse of Mexican history inspired the extraordinary diversity of the costumes worn by the opera chorus.

[Below: a scene from Diego Rivera’s mural. “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central”; Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central”, located in Diego Rivera Mural Museo, Mexico City ]

Yaritsa Véliz’ Catrina

Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz assumed the role of Catrina, an immortal being who functions as a guardian of the souls in the Underworld. Catrina oversees the annual Dia de las Muertas rituals that permit limited contact between some of the living and the dead.

Véliz is adorned by a skeletal mask and costume that reflect Rivera’s unique way of drawing the character. Although Catrina is a nontraditional role for making one’s San Francisco Opera debut, Véliz’ expressive, appealing voice shone through.

[Below: Yaritza Véliz as Catrina; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Véliz, a 2020 graduate of the Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) Young Artists program and a winner of a vocal competition sponsored by the Liceu Opera in Barcelona, has already amassed impressive operatic performance credentials internationally. Her list of future engagements confirms she is in the early years of an important career (which will include Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in the 2024 Santa Fe Opera Festival, which I am planning to review.)

Jake Ingbar’s Leonardo and other Cast Members

Minnesota countertenor Jake Ingbar, another young artist making a San Francisco Opera debut, proved an engaging Leonardo. Ingbar shares with other operatic countertenors a repertory emphasizing Renaissance and baroque vocal music. Ingbar also shows an affinity for contemporary roles created for his vocal category. 

Leonardo is a female impersonator, whose specialty is portraying the reclusive actress Greta Garbo, allowing Leonardo to show human kindness in an unusual twist of the opera’s Dia de las Muertas plot.

[Below: Jake Ingbar as Leonardo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Currently a member of the Dutch National Opera Studio, residing in Amsterdam, Ingbar is another young artist in the early years of a promising career.

California baritone John Fulton, California tenor Moises Salazar and Puerto Rican bass Ricardo Lugo were respectively Aldeano #1, #2 and #3. California soprano Mikayla Sager, California mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz and Georgia mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Beteag were respectively Frida image #1, #2 and #3. Oregon mezzo-soprano Whitney Steele was Guadalupe Ponti.

Maestro Roberto Kalb and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Mexican maestro Roberto Kalb, currently Music Director of the Detroit Opera, assumed responsibility for both Frida y Diego’s San Diego Opera world premiere and its subsequent performances at the San Francisco Opera. Conducting a new work, especially an opera, inevitably requires addressing a myriad of details that a conductor does not encounter with established operas. Every note that a composer has written for the human voice and for each orchestral instrument has to be performable (including the artist’s ability to breathe). If there are any problems, the conductor must resolve them.

[Below: Maestro Roberto Kalb; edited image, based on a Benjamin Taylor photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Kalb presided with authority over the excellent San Francisco Opera Orchestra, the San Francisco Opera Chorus and a cast that included only one principal (Daza) from the world premiere.

Chorus Director John Keene and the San Francisco Opera Chorus

The San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the leadership of John Keene, was musically and dramatically central to the opera’s plot.

[Below: Chorus Master John Keene; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The chorus members, bedecked in colorful costumes that reperesented Mexicans (and Spanish conquistadors and indigenous populations) of the past several centuries, collectively represented the departed whom the living celebrate on Dia de las Muertas.

[Below: Diego (Alfredo Daza, right, at top of stairs, bottom right) and Frida (Daniela Mack, second from right) join others celebrating the Dias de las Muertas; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

In the first act especially, the use of the Chorus in storytelling is so central that one imagines, except for the varied, multicolored costumes and vibrant set design, that one might be attending a dramatic oratorio. In fact, in the 21st century, some baroque era oratorios are now being produced as operas [see Review: A Visually, Vocally Stunning “Saul” at Houston Grand Opera – October 25, 2019].

[Below: Other Mexican figures being portrayed by members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Director Lorena Maza and Designers Jorge Ballina, Eloise Kazan and Victor Zapatero, and Choreographer Colm Seery

The opera’s lavish and inventive production was directed by Mexican director Lorena Maza, who  integrated the Dias de las Muertas theme with the relevant images from Rivera’s murals and Kahlo’s paintings.

Mexican set designer Jorge Ballina created a scenic design that utilized ceremonial elements of the Dias – including the flood of marigolds covering cemeteries and all other spaces shared by the living and the dead. Mexican costume designer Eloise Kazan produced a spectacular array of costumes, each representing persons from various centuries, occupations, and stations in life. The lighting was created by Mexican designer Victor Zapatero, the dance moves by Irish choreographer Colm Seery.

Recommendation: I recommend “The Last Dream of Frida and Diego” to both the operatic veteran and the newcomer to opera.