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Tragic Cuban opera compels in Miami debut

The Florida Grand Opera revives the story of famed Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas in ‘Before Night Falls.’

The Florida Grand Opera revives the story of famed Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas in ‘Before Night Falls,’ an opera by exile composer Jorge Martin based on Arenas’ memoir and the film of the same name. The story of Arenas, who was jailed i
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The Florida Grand Opera revives the story of famed Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas in ‘Before Night Falls,’ an opera by exile composer Jorge Martin based on Arenas’ memoir and the film of the same name. The story of Arenas, who was jailed i

In the grand tradition of composers like Verdi and Puccini, the opera “Before Night Falls” closes with a deathbed scene. But in place of a fallen woman succumbing to consumption, contemporary composer Jorge Martin presents a gay, Cuban dissident writer drinking poison to speed his death from AIDS.

As Reinaldo Arenas in Florida Grand Opera’s production, which opened Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 29-year-old Elliot Madore showed why he is a rising star, with gigs this season from Sydney to Luxembourg to the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the central role of the famed Cuban writer who escaped the island on the Mariel boatlift only to die of AIDS in 1990, the handsome lyric baritone showed off his acting chops, fluidly shifting from the writer’s youth to his death. With his lovely upper register, Madore captured Arenas’ joy in the act of writing, while the thrilling resonance of his low notes conveyed the terror of the writer’s struggle against the Cuban state.

Madore led the FGO cast in bringing out the beauty in Martin’s lush score, which is accented with hints of Cuban folklore and pop. Wooden sticks beat the rhythm of a rumba to signal the transition from Arenas’ sickbed to his childhood home in Holguín, Cuba. The rumba beat continues as a counterpoint to the writer tapping the keys of his typewriter in Havana.

Later, while evading the state police, Arenas joins two tenors, his cruising pal Pepe (Javier Abreu) and his mentor Ovidio (Dinyar Vania) in a trio, “Oh, Our Unhappy Island,” worthy of Trio Matamoros.

The music never stops as the production, borrowed from the opera’s world premiere by the Fort Worth Opera in 2010, deftly changes scenes through video projections on ever-shifting screens that rolled on and off stage and rose and fell from the ceiling. The façade of a tenement suggests New York, while palm trees and a porch convey Holguín, and an image of sand and sky hint at a beach outside Havana.

The opera is mostly melodic speech, with the libretto too often painfully spelling out what the characters think and feel, rather than trusting the expressive power of the music. Even so, a few powerful arias emerge, like Lazaro’s lament and Arenas’ mournful acknowledgment in “What Magic Color Is the Sea?” that “my muses no longer sing to me.”

In a dual role as Arenas’ mother and muse, The Moon, favorite Miami soprano Elizabeth Caballero seized dramatic opportunity by infusing “Promise Me, Child,” a plea by Arenas’ mother that her son never forget the island, with warm, earthy tones that contrasted sharply with the almost steely brightness she brought to her vocal runs as The Moon. Mezzo-soprano Melissa Fajardo, a singer in FGO’s Young Artist program, held her own with Caballero as Arenas’ second muse, The Sea, though there were moments when Caballero overpowered not only Fajardo, but Madore as well.

Martin composed his most powerful music for the chorus, and the FGO singers, under the direction of chorus master Katherine Kozak, delivered a rousing victory march for the revolutionary soldiers, a desperate call for libertad after the storming of the Peruvian embassy that sparked the Mariel boatlift, and most poignantly, decrying the “Dark and Ancient Fortress” of El Morro prison.

Despite FGO’s uniformly stellar performances and Martin’s gorgeous score, “Before Night Falls” failed to capture the power at the core of Arenas’ memoir. Two precious ballet numbers, choreographed by Miami Youth Ballet’s Yanis Pikieris and performed by beautiful young men from Dimensions Dance Theater, were meant to convey Arenas’ sex life — and gave the strongest proof that the opera is too prissy for a memoir the Miami Herald once reviewed as “a deathbed ode to eroticism.”

The audience is told over and over that Arenas is gay, but that is a far cry from harnessing the sexual energy that courses through his chronicle of desire. If Arenas shared a fate with Violetta and Mimi, he shared a libido with characters like Carmen, Delilah, Salome and Don Giovanni. Neither the libretto, nor the music, ever suggest that so much more happened in Rey’s bed than death.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.

If you go

What: “Before Night Falls” by Florida Grand Opera

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday

Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Info: $12 to $175, fgo.org or 800-741-1010

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