By its very nature, opera is melodramatic and perfectly suited to fanciful tales of powerful pharaohs and quixotic Chinese princesses. When most people think of opera, they conjure up stereotypical images of Valkyries in winged helmets with busty breastplates or massive statues come to life to torment the sinful.
Adapting a real historical event—particularly a contemporary story—can present challenges for even the most talented librettist and composer, who must delicately balance actual events with the requisite drama and, yes, the music.
Last weekend, Florida Grand Opera presented just the second production of Jorge Martin’s “Before Night Falls,” an operatic treatment of the life of gay Cuban poet and dissident Reinaldo Arenas.
Based on the writer’s own memoir, Arenas’ life offers more than enough material for a full-length opera:
As a youth on an inland farm, Arenas yearned to escape the dominating personalities of his mother and many aunts, all scorned and resentful of men. He embraced his homosexual urges and left home to join a rebel unit in the mountains, but quickly learned that the “freedom” his comrades preached would not extend to his sexual orientation or his creative pursuits.
Years later, Arenas joined a group of underground writers, many of whom were gay, until his international fame drew the scorn of the Communist party. His friends betrayed him and he was forced to shamefully “confess” his crimes against the glorious revolution.
In 1980, he managed to leave the shores of his homeland with the Mariel Boatlift and eventually migrated north to Manhattan, where he could finally live openly as a gay artist. Just a few years later, Arenas contracted the dreaded “gay cancer” and hurriedly set out to write his final work, a memoir, before assertively taking his own life in 1990 at the age of 47.
Yes, there’s a lot of material there, presenting a challenge for Martin, who tackled both the libretto and score. Martin’s music is eclectic in style, more melodic than many contemporary composers and, at times, evokes lush cinematic harmonies. But, there is just so much history to cover, he leaves few opportunities for his characters to just sing. Arenas’ own words are naturally poetic, but when coupled with the requirement to advance the story and the strange inclusion of feminine muses to represent the sea and moon, the result is disjointed at best.
The strongest musical moments occur during the choruses in the first act—Arenas’ aunts singing in the barnyard, soldiers around a campfire, dissidents lamenting the sad state of their island.
Elliot Madore (Arenas) is a handsome leading man with a resounding baritone voice. At just 29 years old, the Canadian singer has a long career ahead. Under David Gately’s solid direction, Madore earnestly conveys the writer’s deep-seated anguish and disillusionment without crossing the fine line into camp, as so often can happen—and effectively, too—in opera.
Other noteworthy performances include tenor Javier Abreu (Arenas’ young lover Pepe), bass Calvin Griffin (rebel leader Victor) and soprano Elizabeth Caballero (the Moon). Caballero, an FGO regular, was notably also a refugee who came to Miami in the Mariel Boatlift.
Lithe dancers from Dimension Dance Theatre of Miami cavorted on the stage in two effective ballets, choreographed by Yanis Pikieris, symbolizing the burning homosexual urges the poet satisfied on Havana’s gay beach before his arrest. The production was further punctuated by sweeping projections and videos that beautifully set the stage for Martin’s epic undertaking.
Martin said the greatest challenge for an opera composer is getting a work performed “a second time.” (The opera received its world premiere in Fort Worth seven years ago.) Even with its flaws, “Before Night Falls” is an important contribution to the repertoire that deserves to be produced in cities beyond Miami.
Florida Grand Opera presents Jorge Martin’s “Before Night Falls” on Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25 at 8 p.m. at the Arsht Center in Miami. Tickets start at $19 at FGO.org.