Opera review: Before Night Falls, Fort Worth Opera

Within moments after the curtain rises on Jorge Martin’s “Before Night Falls,” the hero collapses into his deathbed.  It’s an obvious allusion to all those consumptive operatic heroines of the romantic era and reinforces why the memoir of Cuban writer Renaldo Arenas was such a good choice for a staged adaptation. The Fort Worth Opera premiered the work in two performances at Bass Hall, as part of an early summer festival that also included “Don Giovanni” and “The Elixir of Love.”  I attended the matinee on Saturday, June 6.

Arenas died of AIDS in 1990 at age 47 and the epidemic still seems potent material for musical exploration.  Just two years ago the Fort Worth Opera mounted the operatic version of “Angels in America.”   But AIDS is almost a minor topic in the new three hour-long work.  Freedom — artistic and sexual — is the more dominate theme.

From his bed Arenas pleads for his two muses, played by sopranos in glittery ball gowns and beehive hairdos, to take him back to his youth.  Soon he’s cavorting on the beaches of Cuba and we follow his entanglement in revolutionary politics, pursuit of love and companionship, and achievement of international fame with the overseas publication of his visionary writing.

The young baritone Wes Mason played Arenas with remarkable vocal stamina and  physical dexterity to give a vivid portrait of the character’s playful creativity and steely constitution.  The singing quality of the mostly young supporting cast, though, was very uneven.   Bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico played the revolutionary officer Victor with terrific strength and clarity and Jesus Garcia, as a fellow writer, was suitable though a bit anonymous.  Tenor Jonathan Blalock, as one of Arenas’s lovers, sang with a reedy, disembodied voice and soprano Janice Hall’s one scene as the mother was just unpleasant.   A hearty chorus of about 30 was dispatched as a militant band in the first half and disco revelers near the end.

The Manhattan and Cuban locales were evoked by projections on various scrims, which after a while gave the production a weightless, floating quality.  Riccardo Hernandez was credited with scenic design and Peter Nigrini with projections.  Maybe they intended their imagery to foreshadow Arenas’ troubled life, but the beach scenes always had a heavily clouded sky and overly bluish cast.   The stage of Bass Hall also just felt too big for the piece, with many performers exiting with long dashes into the wings.  The two all male dance numbers by choreographer John de los Santos were acrobatic, choppy, and rigid, while the narrative and Martin’s lush scoring called for sensuality and seduction.

There’s plenty of Latin dance rhythms throughout and overall the opera’s pacing is quick with lots of short scenes that keep things moving. Martin’s orchestration is traditional but sometimes daringly light and understated.  Some pivotal choruses and ensembles were performed a capella.

The composer made his own libretto with assistance from Dolores M. Koch, who was a translator of Arenas’ writings.  Too often they have the characters announcing their feelings rather then trusting the music to communicate the emotions.  But in a rare accomplishment, almost every word is intelligible — a testament to both the singers and Martin’s skill at setting text.  The supertitles, by the way, provided the English lyrics as well as a Spanish translation.

A beautiful tune comes in the first act when Arenas and a lover sing, “Oh, our unhappy island, when will your troubles be done?”  Near the end of the show, the emotional and political themes come together in the line: “My death notice came not from a tyrant but from my lovers.”

The opera itself seems bolder in its handling of gay content than does the production by director David Gately.  When Arenas applies for sanctuary in the U.S., he’s harshly questioned about his sexuality — even asked by an official if he’s a top or a bottom and ordered to swish about to prove he’s a fag.  (As if his hip huggers and loud flowered shirt weren’t enough.) It was an awkward and painful moment to watch but not unbelievable either.

So why did the Fort Worth audience laugh?  There was nothing particularly campy or clownish in Mason’s movement and his face communicated shame.  Giving the audience the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it was a collective discomfort that came out as a chuckle.

Such powerful material in the libretto and score only highlighted the contrast to the staging, which played it safe with gay sensuality.  There were only two male-to-male kisses in the entire production. Both were pecks on Arena’s forehead, more motherly than passionate. And then there were those stiff dance numbers, with the men knocking against each other almost like football players.

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