MOT’s ‘Frida’ emotional and dynamic

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

You can’t capture protean Mexican artist Frida Kahlo any more than you can catch the wind, but Michigan Opera Theatre, in a co-production with the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, comes close to nabbing this free spirit — at least for the duration of the opera Frida.

Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s 1991 work, which saw its Midwest premiere at a crowded Macomb Center Saturday night, does a mostly admirable job of telling the story of the turbulent, passionate and painful life of Kahlo (1907-54). Despite a horrific accident on a bus at 18 that left her impaled on a metal handrail, her spine, ribs and leg crushed, Kahlo was intent on seizing life for all the joy she could squeeze out of it. Innumerable operations often kept her in body casts, but those physical restraints could not suppress her artistic determination.

Her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera brought as much sorrow as happiness, but they were both guilty of infidelities and vanity. When they’re not being affectionate in Frida, they’re sniping at each other.

There are moments in the opera when it borders on veneration of Kahlo, and the ending is awash in schmaltz, but the work’s emotional and dramatic intensity keeps this production airborne. There’s an episodic, cinematic quality to the action, which director Jose Maria Condemi paces at a brisk clip.

Credit Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo as Frida Kahlo for lifting Frida to such lofty heights. Cuervo doesn’t just play the role, she embodies it. Never was there any doubt that she was Kahlo personified. By turns defiant, fiery and sensitive, Cuervo also has the rare ability to act with her voice, calibrating it to project rage, pain or tenderness.

Production and costume designer Monika Essen rightly dons Cuervo in Fauvist hues of peacock blue, canary yellow and cherry red, with a cluster of bright flowers in her hair. In life and in art, Kahlo hated timid colors.

There’s one scene in which Cuervo appears topless, and that might strike some as gratuitous. However, Kahlo was obsessed with her body and frequently portrayed herself nude or semi-nude in such paintings as My Birth, The Broken Column or Henry Ford Hospital, yet these works are more gruesome than erotic.

Bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera portrayed Rivera with swaggering assurance. Rivera’s ego was as extensive as his waistline, but the leftist artist was smart enough to dial down the cockiness to kowtow to capitalists if it meant getting a commission, which infuriated his wife.

Initially, Herrera’s high notes were pinched, but once he warmed up his voice projected a burnished glow.

Rodriguez’s score teeters between opera and musical theater, and that’s perfectly fine. So does Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and Street Scene, and they’re all great works. Rodriguez also includes some lively Mexican folk tunes and snatches of tangos and sambas. Only 11 musicians performed in the pit, and Suzanne Mallare Acton conducted them with panache, which no doubt pleased Rodriguez, who was in attendance.

As mentioned, Essen’s costumes were fetching, and she went to Mexico to ensure they were authentic. Her sets worked well, too, with parts of Kahlo’s body — an eye, beast, and lips — magnified. But when the eye starts to shed tears each time Frida has an emotional setback — the bus accident, a miscarriage, or Rivera’s affair with her sister — the effect is contrived and heavy-handed. Dramatically trenchant moments like these can speak for themselves.

Essen also includes a large hanging butterfly and heart, two of Kahlo’s favorite images and symbols of life. But a group of skeleton-masked dancers who appear sporadically act as reminders of Kahlo’s mortality. This death chorus mocks her in high-pitched sarcastic voices, one eerily claiming “She’s almost ours” as the artist nears death.

Rivera and Kahlo lived in Detroit while Rivera completed his Detroit Industry frescoes at the DIA, but there are no specific references in the opera to Detroit.

However, with continued performances of Frida, in tandem with the DIA’s exhibition Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit opening March 15, expect “Frida Fever” to intensify.


Macomb Center

for the Performing Arts

44575 Garfield, Clinton Township

Repeats today (March 8) at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets $55

Berman Center

for the Performing Arts

6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield Township

March 21-22

Tickets $65

DIA's Detroit Film Theatre Auditorium

5200 Woodward, Detroit

March 27-28 (March 28 sold out)

Tickets $55