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Review: Jorge Martin's "Before Night Falls"

Written by Elizabeth Bloom on .

I always enjoy hearing about what's happening in the classical music and opera scenes in other markets. To that end, Post-Gazette senior editor Robert Croan contributes this terrific review of Florida Grand Opera's production of Jorge Martin's opera "Before Night Falls." Enjoy!

Review: Florida Grand Opera's "Before Night Falls" is a timely production

By Robert Croan 

MIAMI, Fl — It's nothing new for an opera to be a vehicle for contemporary political and social issues. Most of Verdi's early operas, for example, were thinly disguised metaphors for then-controversial ideals of Italian unification. Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" was based on a French play considered so seditious that it passed the censor only after its diatribes against government were altered to complaints against women's infidelity. In this honorable tradition, Jorge Martin's "Before Night Falls," the major event of Florida Grand Opera's 2016-17 season, hits on several hot-button issues of today: Cuba and the suppression of dissidents, freedom of speech, gay rights and torture, just for a start.

Mr. Martin, 58, is a gay Cuban-American whose parents came to the United States when he was five years old. His opera, premiered in Fort Worth in 2010 and now brought to the city with this country's largest Cuban audience, is based on the eponymous memoir by gay Cuban dissident writer Reinaldo Arenas. The story is already familiar not just from Mr. Arenas' book but also a superb film that starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp. The opera has some flaws, but there is enough in it that's musically and dramatically compelling to make it one of the more important works of this decade. FGO's general director and CEO Susan T. Danis deserves the highest praise for bringing important new repertory into every season since she took over in 2013. In 2018, she will produce Daniel Catan's "Florencia en el Amazones," another opera that has had success in cities with significant Latino populations.

The real-life Mr. Arenas fought in the revolution that put Fidel Castro into power, but Mr. Arenas' comrades turned on him when he came out against the Castro regime's oppression. Betrayed by his lover and by his closest friend, Mr. Arenas was imprisoned, tortured, humiliated and forced to recant publicly his anti-government ideas as well as his sexual orientation. Eventually, with the help of a straight homeless man, Lazaro Gomes Garriles, who admired his writing, Mr. Arenas escaped on the Mariel boatlift. He contracted AIDS in New York, at a time when the disease was an irrevocable death sentence, but lived long enough to write the memoir that has made him immortal.

The libretto, by the composer with Delores M. Koch, covers all the main points, although the first act is too long, and there's an episodic quality that impedes development of any but the central character. And the presence of two otherworldly characters, two female muses (Elizabeth Caballero and Melissa Fajardo), comes off as pretentious and holds up the action at crucial moments.

Mr. Martin's music is absorbing and listenable, changing idioms according to the plot and overtly incorporating the idioms of Strauss and Prokofiev, Latin dance and Copland's Americana. Conductor Christopher Allen brought out all sorts of unexpected details in Mr. Martin's shrewd orchestral palette. His vocal writing is admirable in clarifying the words (mostly English with some Spanish) in a big house, and his lines are inevitably singable. Most of the solo music is declamatory, however, with a sparsity of melody even in extended arias. One problem is that because Lazaro is declared straight, there are no opportunities for a love duet, which might have provided an extended lyrical outpouring.

The Fort Worth production worked well in Miami's elegant Arsht Center, Riccardo Hernandez's simple but attractive sets cogently enhanced by Harry Frehner's imaginative lighting and Peter Nigrini's striking projections. Director David Gately focused on individual emotional responses yet also managed the crowd scenes aptly.

This opera is a star turn for its hero, and Canadian baritone Elliot Madore proved himself an ideal protagonist. Handsome and sensitive, with a colorful, resonant sound that filled the theater and expressed the emotional gamut, Mr. Madore never flagged in a role that has him on stage for almost all the opera's three-hour duration. His stamina was all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the performance I attended (March 18) was the second of the run, a Sunday matinee immediately following the Saturday opening night.

The supporting singers were uniformly excellent: dark-hued tenor Dintar Vania as Reinaldo's teacher Ovidio, whose renunciation scene — shown on video — was harrowing; Calvin Griffin as Victor, a menacing friend-turned-persecutor; and most praiseworthy, bright-toned Michael Kuhn, a very human, ineffably sad Lazaro. The scene in which he administers poison to a willing Reinaldo to end the dying man's suffering was another emotional high point.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.  

Correction appended: Michael Kuhn portrayed Lazaro. A previous version of this article listed an incorrect performer. 

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