The UK Premiere at Leeds of Frida by Robert Rodriguez

The Northern Opera Group can be relied on to come up with something enterprising at its annual Leeds Opera Festival, especially now that they have a venue at the Leeds School of Arts which offers enhanced theatrical facilities; and this year, with its focus on Latin American music, was no exception. Alongside the relatively familiar Maria de Buenos Aires by the tango-inspired composer Piazzolla, there was the UK première of Frida by the American-Mexican Robert Xavier Rodriguez. The piece is to be located somewhere on the spectrum opera-zarzuela-musical. It has a serious content, focussing on the volatile relationship of the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but employing musical idioms embracing jazz, folk and contemporary classical, somewhat in the manner of Kurt Weill.

Let it be said at once, that Rodriguez’s haunting score was most impressive. There was nothing clichéd about the use of the various idioms; rather, combined with ingenious sound effects, expertly exploiting the timbre of the accordion and percussion, they ably underpinned the drama . Odaline de la Martinez was the knowing and precise conductor of the small band. Authenticity was lent to proceedings by the shifts in the text between English and Spanish but the libretto (book Hilary Blecher, lyrics and monologues Migdalia Cruz) did not achieve the same heights of invention as the music. The problem lay in ambitiously exploring too broad a range of themes – the lives and loves of Rivera and Kahlo; artistic creativity; sexuality; oppressive capitalism; political revolution – and, at the end, following a rather breathless scamper from one to another, the work could reveal little that was novel or profound.

Nevertheless, all the performers tackled portrayal of their characters with conviction and, where appropriate, exuberance. They were helped by a production (director Francesca Murray-Fuentes) which used the space with imaginative movement, particularly by the Calaveras (masked skull-figures representing death), and in an astute décor (designer Lu Herbert) which was not overloaded with detail but communicated some key visual images, such as empty picture-frames. The soloists, notably Parvathi Subbiah as Frida and Jacobo Ochoa, as Diego, contributed to the success of the enterprise with their uninhibited, attractive singing.

Another significant operatic novelty served up by this boldly adventurous group.