Cuban writer Ricardo Arenas’ novel, Before Night Falls, which was also filmed with Javier Bardem in the lead, is now the inspiration for an opera by Jorge Martin recently performed in Fort Worth, Texas. Here is an interesting article by Anne Midgette on the opera from the Washington Post, followed by links to reviews.
I can’t review “Before Night Falls,” the opera based on Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir that had its world premiere at the Fort Worth Opera on May 29, because its composer, Jorge Martin, is a friend of mine. I have heard parts of the opera in workshop performances over the years; in fact, I feel our friendship was sealed when I heard its lush opening in a Manhattan performance space several years ago, and thrilled to the uprush of music. Hearing it played by full orchestra as the curtain rose in Fort Worth on May 29, I had the same sense of exhilaration, as well as the satisfaction of getting to experience the realization of what the work was supposed to be all along.
So my judgment is tainted because of my bias and involvement. Or is it? For one thing, every critic comes to the table with some bias. For another thing, my sense of involvement mirrored that of the patrons of the Fort Worth Opera who felt a proprietary air about “their” new work, or of the Seagle Colony where “Before Night Falls” had the final workshop at which Darren Woods, Fort Worth’s general director, decided to put it on. About 40 members of that original Seagle workshop audience flew to Fort Worth for the premiere, Woods said. “They felt they’d given birth to the baby.”
Exposure to the actual genesis of a work is one of the most powerful ways to connect with it. I’m a big fan of the house concert, the open rehearsal: situations that allow you to see artists at work, rather than admire a finished product. I know that my experience of the revival of the powerful “Saint-François d’Assise” production at Salzburg in 1998 was enhanced by my introduction to it in stages: first interviewing Peter Sellars in the empty theater while behind him they checked the neon lights of George Tsypin’s set, illuminating his face in green and red and blue; then seeing a working rehearsal, everyone in street clothes transforming themselves not through costume but through music alone. After that, opening night seemed pale. It was more polished, and yet I felt shut out.
I didn’t have quite as close an involvement with the genesis of “Before Night Falls,” though Jorge illuminated it on a blog he kept in the weeks leading up to the premiere. But I felt partisan, in a good way, as it opened. “The biggest thrill,” Jorge said on the phone a few weeks later, “was just hearing the orchestra” after years of hearing it only on a piano and imagining how it would sound when done right. I felt the same way. The orchestra is a huge character in this opera, and it does a lot of the heavy lifting, rocking the ear with sonorities, evoking the lushness of the island landscape, mimicking the plinking of a typewriter with the driving rhythms of a Minimalist score, setting a scene with period dance music. Indeed, it almost eclipsed the vocal writing, which I didn’t find as distinctive.
Politically, it’s a complicated subject. If the pro-gay message might have been thought a turn-off to conservative Fort Worth, it was counterbalanced by an equal measure of anti-Castro feeling that was a lot more congenial to this crowd. Jorge had a strong personal connection to the story — he, too, is gay and Cuban-born, though his family left the country when he was about five — and in the opera he juxtaposed magical realism with what you might call cinematic close-up. On the one hand, the sea and sky are personified, singing to Arenas as his muses while he lies dying of AIDS in a New York apartment. On the other, the score moves into illustrative mode when it presents the catchy rhythms of Cuban dances, or the mind-numbing banality of the political song-cum-slogan sung by Castro’s revolutionaries in their camp.
When reality intrudes in an opera — as is happening all the time these days — it’s interesting to see how people react; even a fairly sophisticated opera audience can be strikingly literal-minded. I was struck by how many people seemed to take the political song at face value rather than as deliberate irony. And I think the fact that it was a true story made it more difficult for people to accept Jorge’s libretto, which is high-flown in its language and tone. “If you go into this expecting an opera like a well-made play, you’re not going to get it,” Jorge said. “It’s not a well-made play style. It’s much more stylized.”
I also spoke to a couple of acquaintances who happen to be gay and said they felt that the opera should have moved them more. (Jorge certainly cleaned up the book, which contains a staggering amount of fairly explicit sex in the first few chapters; in the opera, all of this is merely evoked, Britten-like, in a couple of lyrical all-male ballets.) This made me think about the ways in which we who love opera react when it takes on topics directly relevant to our lives. My initial reaction to “Amelia” at the Seattle Opera, which I’d seen the week before, was similarly partisan. The opera is about a girl who loses her beloved father as a child: I also lost my beloved father as a child, and I found myself more judgmental of the opera, rather than more sympathetic, as a result. I was glad I saw it a second time so I was able to see past some of my personal reactions to the subject and focus on what the opera was actually trying to do. Talk about bias.
I should note, though, that other gay acquaintances indeed found “Before Night Falls” powerfully moving — just as many people were moved by “Amelia” precisely because they could identify with its subject (including military personnel who identified with its portrayal of Vietnam).
In fact, we always have biases. I’m not sure they always cloud our judgment. My partisanship for “Before Night Falls” is reflected not in an inability to see the work’s weaknesses as well as its strengths, but simply in a desire to see it do as well as possible. This isn’t only because I admire my friend’s opera, but also because I admire the Fort Worth Opera for gambling on a piece it didn’t even commission: it is a good and sometimes rare thing when institutions are able to respond to an individual artist’s creative vision. (You could say the Dallas Opera did something similar in going along with Jake Heggie’s desire to compose an opera based on “Moby-Dick.”) As yet, there are no future productions planned of “Before Night Falls.” But the opera was warmly, even rapturously received by the opening-night audience in Fort Worth.
Reviews of “Before Night Falls”:
Scott Cantrell in the Dallas Morning News
Gregory Isaacs on TheatreJones.com
Jay Nordlinger in The National Review
Wayne Lee Gay in D Magazine
Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal
David Shengold in Gay City News
For Anne Midgette’s original article go to http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2010/06/before_night_falls_in_fort_wor.html