Incredibly, Dallas/Fort Worth has given the opera world two major new works in just one month. Before Night Falls, an opera by Cuban-born composer and librettist Jorge Martín, premiered with much success on Saturday, as the third presentation in the scrappy Fort Worth Opera's 2010 Festival. This arrives just several weeks after the Dallas Opera presented Jake Heggie and Gene Sheer’s Moby-Dick to equally thunderous reactions at the Winspear Opera House. New operas that are this successful are rare indeed, but two right here in our own backyard? Bravi.
These two new operas have much in common, other than their positions in time and space. Both have libretti that are drastic reductions of impossibly complex novels. Martín wrote his own, based on the book of the same title, but Heggie made the better decision by bringing in a dramatist. Sometimes, what read well in Arenas' book sounded like sloganeering when sung.
Both Moby-Dick and Before Night Falls are composed, thankfully, in a highly accessible musical language by theatrically astute composers who are masters of their craft. Heggie and Martín share an expertise in orchestration, which makes for highly colored scores. Both productions rely almost exclusively on projections as sets, with a few other pieces, such as chairs, used to convey physical locations. Most prominently, both have sanitized the real horror of their respective novels.
Before Night Falls traces the life of Reinaldo Arenas, as detailed in his shockingly frank autobiography. The author takes us from his Cuban childhood, where he was forced to eat dirt to assuage his hunger, to his lonely death from AIDS while living in penniless squalor in New York City. On a higher level, it is a dispassionate study of the cruelty humans inflict on each other and one man’s dogged determination to survive. But the book does not progress on such a high plane. On a day-to-day detail level, it is a story of poverty, betrayal, torture, horrific prisons, starvation, rejection, desertion, tyranny, war―and lots of gay sex. Early on in the book, Arenas claims more than 5,000 clandestine sexual encounters, many in public parks and beach changing rooms.
In an odd way, the transformation of Reinaldo Arenas from human to opera character brings to mind another journey, that of Marie Duplessis. She was a real-life courtesan who was pimped out by her father as a teenager, but ended up living with Franz Liszt, among others who could afford her. She became the idealized Marguerite Gautier the novel The Lady of the Camellias by the younger Alexandre Dumas (son of The Count of Monte Cristo author), who was one of her many lovers. She finally ended up as the saintly Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata. In each incarnation, she was nobler than the one before.
Arenas has made a similar arc.
Turning his life into a book did not require the services of a love-struck Dumas fils. Most of his contemporaries agree that Arenas romanticized his struggles himself when writing the chillingly matter-of-fact retelling of his life. This is not to say that he downplayed its terrible aspects, nor does this imply that his survival was anything less than heroic. But in the opera, he rises to the status of near-sainthood, thanks to his martyrdom in the cause of freedom.
What is missing in the opera version of Before Night Falls is the gritty reality that the book conveys. El Morro prison is a very clean affair onstage, just a few lines on a movable scrim. In reality, it was a filthy place where a weekly bath was a bucket of cold water as they walked, naked and reeking, past a row of guards. The latrine was a hole in the ground in the middle of the common area and the stench permeated every nook and cranny. The maggot-infested food was so sparse that the inmates were all in a state of starvation. The prisoners weren’t just knocked around a little, as in this opera, but were sometimes locked in a box too small for them to even stand up, and left there for extended periods of time, without food or water, to lie in their own excrement. And there weren’t a few suggestive dancers cavorting on a beach; there were constant gay orgies behind every bush and door.
No one expected to see any of this on the stage at Bass Hall. However, one could only wonder what an author who said “I scream, therefore I am,” would have thought of this opera based on his autobiography―complete with a Hollywood ending, oo-ing celestial choirs and a bright blue sky full of fluffy clouds.
The silly dust-up over choreographer John de los Santos’ depiction of gay sex on the beach is a case in point. Robo-calls went out to patrons warning them of “mature and homosexual subject matter.” Duh! What really transpired was hardly shocking. It was similar to what was seen at the Metropolitan Opera years ago in a staging of Britten’s Death in Venice. That was nothing compared to Carol Neblett's nude scene in a 1973 staging of Massenet's Thais, Maria Ewing’s bare-all in Salome, the lesbian lover in Berg’s shocker Lulu or the Salzburg Festival’s Der Rosenkavalier that was set in a brothel with naked men running around. And if all of Arenas’ sexual conquests made it into a book à la Don Giovanni, his Leporello would have had to lug around a 10-volume set.
Opera is not factual biography or a depiction of reality. Au contraire. Verdi's Traviata is a masterpiece and, perhaps, Martín's Before Night Falls is one as well. Both succeed musically and as works of theater, however lightly they gloss over the unsavory circumstances and personality traits of their protagonists.
Martín has imbued his score with many lovely moments that evoke the Latin rhythms of Cuba and the musical atmosphere, such as popular songs and film scores, of the various eras he invokes. He does this deftly while still sounding fresh and original. If there is any detectable influence, it might be Hector Villa-Lobos’ 1958 score Forest of the Amazon. There are lots of nice touches throughout.
For example, a newly composed song that is sung at the revolutionaries' camp is so wonderfully banal that it is hard to believe that it isn’t an authentic marching tune. Unlike many cotemporary composers, Martín has a gift for melody and he isn’t afraid to use it. Much of the score is harmonically lush, with complex yet consonant structures. Long recitative-like passages are sung over pedal notes and punctuated with staccato chords. As life gets progressively crazier, these punctuations become more dissonant until they are just splats of minor seconds. In a recent interview, the composer told me that one of the singers described his music as “a Latin Mahler on crack.” That characterization is not too far off.
Director David Gately gives the singers room to bring their own takes to the characters, which adds to believability. He moves them around effectively, although they tend to end up in clusters that seem too facile, real "you three stand here and you four over there" kind of stuff. He brings energy to the stage that is infectious, and it is moving to see a death scene with a baritone and a tenor—and not a soprano in sight.
Wes Mason rises to the challenge of portraying Arenas, although you cannot help but wonder at the wisdom of entrusting such a punishing role to a young singer. He has a remarkable fresh lyric baritone voice, which one hopes he will be able to keep. Tenor Jonathan Blalock, as Lázaro, is another singer with a promising future and a buff frame. Blalock’s role is nowhere near as long as the one undertaken by Mason, but it is still a lot for a young voice.
By the way, every source consulted confirms that the bisexual Lázaro and Arenas were lovers who remained devoted friends as their lives diverged, but the sanitizing opera implies a more platonic relationship. The book is also clear that Lázaro was certifiably psychotic, but other than an early toss-off line in the opera about him being crazy, this is also ignored.
Javier Abreu, another young tenor, is believable as Pepe, Arenas' cute, back-stabbing cruising buddy. Janice Hall is heartbreaking as Arenas’ long suffering mother. Seth Mease Carico, presented as a Castro look-a-like, is excellent as the menacing government hack, Victor.
Tenor Jesus Garcia is noble, even in utter defeat, as the composite character Ovidio. This character is based on a few of the men important to Arenas, but mostly on the prize-winning poet Heberto Padilla. His 1971 arrest and televised confession, to a lack of dedication to the revolution, represented everything wrong about Cuba under Castro.
The addition of two female voices, in the characters of the Sea and the Moon, inserts an element of a Greek chorus, as well as giving voice to the muses that Arenas always felt were near to him until the very end. Their costumes, which change from scene to scene, are the only misstep by designer Claudia Stephens. The Sea (Courtney Ross) wears a full-length romantic tutu (think '50s prom dress), while The Moon (Janice Hall, in her second role) is draped as a Greek goddess. When they enter in less stylized outfits, it takes a while to remember who they are and that they are invisible to everyone except Arenas.
Ross and Hall, both soprano voices, do an excellent job singing these inserted roles and are blessed with some of the loveliest and soaring music in the score. Having Hall portray both protective mother and muse might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but you would not catch this casting subtlety without checking out the name in the program.
Conductor Joe Illick is a marvel on the podium. While the orchestra occasionally overpowered the singers on Saturday, the range of color, expression and taut playing he got from the members of the Fort Worth Symphony was truly amazing. His impeccable sense of dramatic pacing creates some thrilling moments.
►The festival continues with Mozart's Don Giovanni (2 p.m. May 30, 8 p.m. June 4) and Donizetti's The Elixir of Love (8 p.m. June 5) and one more Before Night Falls, wisely spaced a week out to give the young singers time to recoup (2 p.m. June 6).