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Pain, Beauty and Immortality in ‘Frida y Diego,’ SF Opera’s First Spanish-Language Work

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a woman and a man in colorful outfits on a red stage with a person in a gold costume behind them
Yaritza Véliz as Catrina, Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo, and Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera in Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz's 'El último sueño de Frida y Diego.' (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

Leave it to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to keep making history, nearly 70 years after death: In the 100-year history of San Francisco Opera, El último sueño de Frida y Diego is both its first production sung in Spanish, and the first time the Opera has produced the work of a female composer of color, Gabriela Lena Frank.

The production, which opened June 13, gleefully and poignantly captures the “live out loud” nature of the famously tempestuous and highly decorated Mexican couple. The fictional story, about a final meeting between the art icons upon Kahlo’s 24-hour return to earth from the underworld, brings together many terrific facets of performance storytelling. An extra element that makes the production special for San Francisco, given the artists’ time spent living in the city: Just steps from War Memorial Opera House is City Hall, where the couple remarried in 1940 after a short-lived divorce.

The production takes its visual cues from the artists: The vast stage is awash in radiant colors. In the first act, deep fall tones of brown and orange surround the world of the dead, people who have been given enough pan dulce to last them the actual eternity of their spiritual existence.

a blue and orange colorful stage with a woman in an orange dress dancing at center
Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo in Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz’s ‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego.’ (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

That world of votive candles and marigolds is mightily crafted by set designer Jorge Ballina, coupled with the stunning, dramaturgically decadent costumes of designer Eloise Kazan; both have plenty more eye-candy up their sleeve in Act II. Victor Zapatero’s lighting design is both brilliant and wistful, a spectacle on full display. Rounding out the all-Mexican creative team is director Lorena Maza, a highly influential theater figure in Mexico’s national scene.

It has been more than three years since Kahlo left earth to begin eternal rest, which was welcomed considering her body had been breaking down for years. Much of that was due to a devastating trolley accident at 18, leaving her in chronic pain for the remaining 29 years of her life. When the opportunity presents itself to return to earth, why should she? Infinite heartache and pain, both literal and figurative, surrounded every minute of her life.

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While Rivera wore infidelity like a second skin, “Friduchita” was his true muse. His inspiration on earth, having now lived more than three years without his wife, is sorely lacking. His desire to summon Frida as he faces his own mortality and the magic of Dia de los Muertos — and, for her, the opportunity to spend 24 hours on earth and see her art once more — prove too much for both to resist.

Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo in Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz’s ‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego.’ (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The scoring is lush, with seamless poetry from the libretto of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz filling Frank’s compositions deliciously. Conductor Roberto Kalb and his fluid wand are passionate while pulling together such richness from his 60-member orchestra.

But most striking throughout the very tight runtime — action totaling 105 minutes — are the luminescent performances. As Diego Rivera, Alfredo Daza’s superb baritone is an adroit combination of playfulness and regret. His self-deprecation, often referring to his “pot-belly,” lends joviality, making him less fresco muralist icon and more human being.

Scintillating soprano Yaritza Véliz carries much of the responsibility of crafting the story’s magic. She is out-of-this-world as Catrina, the underworld’s soulkeeper. As Catrina, Véliz is a skeletal sight in bronze, commanding with her rules — no touching of a human, because “a caress can cost you the memory of pain.”

a person in an underworld-themed dress/skeleton costume holds a staff with a skeleton on top on a blue stage in a play
Yaritza Véliz as Catrina in Gabriela Lena Frank and Nilo Cruz’s ‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego.’ (Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

The humor and tenderness of the piece comes from countertenor Jake Ingbar, whose artistic spirit of Leonardo greatly desires to return to earth as Greta Garbo. There is a fan who believes Garbo has passed, desiring a spiritual visit, and Leonardo is happy to appease. It is the wisdom and encouragement of Leonardo, along with a chilling set of glimmering vocals, that pushes the story into a new stratosphere. Returning to earth is on Frida’s terms, reminds Leonardo.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is a gargantuan talent with a goosebump-inducing vocal register, but what provides such a full performance is her presence in the mortal world. Just notice all of her discoveries as the 24 hours on earth commence. She sings with verve when reuniting with her beloved Casa Azul, has her breath taken away while her paintings appear (more eye-popping costumes from Kazan), and accepts what is now her immortality as an artistic icon along with her infinite connection to Diego.

a large cast in colorful costumes bow against a red backdrop at the conclusion of an opera
Composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz take a bow with the cast of ‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego’ at the San Francisco Opera premiere on June 13, 2023. (Ando Caulfield for Drew Altizer Photography)

Cruz, who drops morsels of insight about the role of art in our living world, also delivers some critical truths in his shimmering libretto. At one point, Frida asks Diego, “Do they still call me the painter with the brush of agony?”

It is the pain of her life and the legacy of her death that allows both of her lives, whether in a painting or on an opera stage, to flourish.

‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego’ runs through June 30 at San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House. Tickets and more info here.

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