San Francisco Opera’s premiere of “El último sueño de Frida y Diego” (“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego”) imagines a reunion between Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera three years after her death. The first-ever Spanish language opera in the company’s hundred-year history, a co-production with San Diego Opera, is a dazzler.
Frida and Diego had a relationship that was legendary for its ups and downs, to put it mildly. They fought, took other partners, divorced, then remarried in San Francisco, where Rivera was painting a mural, in 1939. In the opera, Rivera summons Kahlo, she returns to the land of the living, Diego dies, and they travel to the underworld, reunited for eternity.
Berkeley-born composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s score, her first for opera, is as wild and fantastical as Kahlo’s paintings. The music is at times folkish to depict Latin themes, darkly colored to evoke death, and bright and lyrical in the happier moments when the two are reunited.
Librettist Nilo Cruz, 2003 Nobel Prize winner for the play “Anna in the Tropics,” sets the story about the couple’s 24-hour reunion—the time permitted on El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)—in 1957.
Kahlo is reticent to leave the Aztec underworld. Her lifelong pain (she was crippled in an accident at an early age) left her after her death, and she is in an untroubled place. Eventually she is persuaded by Leonardo, a friend who has a weird fixation on Greta Garbo, and Catrina, keeper of dead souls, who tells her she must go. Diego is dying and has called her. She decides to go, not for Diego, but to revisit her art.
On opening night in the War Memorial Opera House this week, Detroit Opera Music Director Roberto Kalb, in his San Francisco Opera debut, drew a bombastic and well-crafted performance from the orchestra, and the opera chorus performed superbly.
The cast is universally strong. Argentine mezzo soprano Daniela Mack, a former Adler Fellow, takes the role of Frida with unwavering energy and engagement, her gold-toned voice and perfect phrasing bring the character to vivid life. Mexican baritone Alfredo Daza’s voice is both lyrical and rough as Diego. We believe he is a philanderer and bully.
Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz presents Catrina as a dominant, strong figure. She is the most complex character: spiky, menacing, unpredictable, and as the composer wrote, “a little dangerous.” While Véliz is a powerful presence throughout, countertenor Jake Ingbar is forceful as Leonardo.
“Frida y Diego” goes deeply into Mexican culture, its rituals. its colors, its focus on death. Mexican director Lorena Maza’s staging concentrates much of the action by stringing long lines of stationary figures in the gold-framed, flaming red cemetery in Act 1.
Jorge Ballina’s sets and Eloise Kazan’s costumes show many shades of blue as well, references to the home Casa Azul, where Diego takes Frida to relive their lives together; Frida’s portraiture and Diego’s murals are seen as well. Three Fridas in distinctive costumes take a turn onstage at one point, a nice detail.
“The Last Dream of Frida and Diego,” which premiered in San Diego in October 2022, eventually moves on to Los Angeles Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
San Francisco Opera’s “El último sueño de Frida y Diego” continues at 7:30 p.m. June 17, June 22, June 30 and 2 p.m. June 25 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $26 to $464. The June 22 performance will be live-streamed, with tickets at $27.50. For more information, call (415) 864-3330 or visit sfopera.com.