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Review: Fort Worth Opera Takes a Leap Away From Tradition

by Olin Chism 30 May 2010 2:23 PM

The Fort Worth Opera took a daring departure from tradition with the world premiere of ‘Before Night Falls’ on Saturday. But any hope that the new opera would rival the success of Dallas’ recent ‘Moby-Dick’ was dashed before the lengthy first act was finished.


The Fort Worth Opera took a daring departure from tradition with the world premiere of Before Night Falls on Saturday night in Bass Performance Hall. The new opera takes a two-pronged look at injustice: The protagonist suffers not only because he’s a political dissident in Castro’s Cuba, but because he’s gay.

It’s that last point that may shock Butterfly-lovers, although in 2010 it carries less punch than it might have in earlier eras. The production by no means soft-pedals the sexual-orientation angle, but it doesn’t unduly exploit it, either. True, there are a couple of gay ‘orgies’ in the first act, but the effect is softened by depicting them as stylized dances. The rest of the opera is less challenging.

The political-dissidence angle should offend no one. The opera has a sharply anti-Castro tone; the exiles in Miami should be happy with it.

Before Night Falls, whose music is by Cuban-born composer Jorge Martín, is based on the memoir of Cuban exile writer Reinaldo Arenas, who escaped the Communists only to die of AIDS in New York. Arenas is the principal character in the opera (which was planned before the movie of the same name).

Any hope that Fort Worth’s new opera would rival the success of Dallas’ recent Moby-Dick was dashed before the lengthy first act was finished. Martín is a skilled composer who manages to integrate a variety of styles in his orchestral writing (including catchy Latin sounds in the Cuban episodes), but — like so many contemporary composers — he seems unable to write effective, memorable vocal lines.

The cast was uneven. Wes Mason as Arenas  — who was rarely not onstage for two-and-half-hours — and Seth Mease Carico as a Fidel Castro type scored points, especially dramatically [Carico interrogates Mason, above]. But Jonathan Blalock as Arenas’ faithful companion and Jesus Garcia as the protagonist’s mentor produced tiring sounds (part of the problem may have been the musical lines they had to contend with).

At least just about everyone, including the chorus, displayed decent theatrical instincts in bringing director David Gately’s bold conception to life.

Conductor Joe Illick got strong and atmospheric sounds out of the Fort Worth Symphony.

Before Night Falls, like Moby-Dick, makes heavy use of projections, though they understandably fall short of the expensive wizardry created in Dallas. Photographs of what I take to be Havana and New York as well as beach and ocean scenes project onto a curved backstop and panels that slide in vertically and horizontally. Prop elements are moved on and offstage by costumed people as the performance continues. It’s all pretty effective — though the final scene, with blue skies and puffy clouds suggesting a celestial destination as poor Arenas lies dead on his bed, seemed a little hokey to me.

The production team includes set design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume designs by Claudia Stephens, lighting by Harry Frehner and projection designs by Peter Nigrini.

Incidentally, the text is projected both in English and Spanish (the singing is in English). Diction tends to be quite clear.

The festival continues Before Night Falls with The Elixir of Love and Don Giovanni through next weekend.

  • TB

    I know someone who saw it. He said that the music was forgettable and the staging was so bad as to be laughable – unintentionally, of course. The group he was with had the same reaction.

  • Morris Martin

    We would all be better served with comments from actual participants rather than rumor-mongerers. What’s the motivation of posting “rumors”? The participants gave their hearts and souls, their bodies and minds, to this production. Do you have something similar to offer?

  • TB

    @Morris Martin: Some people who saw Before Night Falls thought that — despite the efforts of its composer, cast, crew, and designers — it was not a good production. That’s an opinion, but it’s not a rumor.

  • Rawlins Gilliland

    Well those I know who saw it thought it was wonderful great value with a ton of unpredictable artistry tossed into the flavorful mix. As my Dad said, “Why not enjoy the ride rather than derail the train?” Indeed.

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