The climactic riot in Don Davis’ “Rio de Sangre.” Jay Westhauser photo for the Florentine Opera.
Gorgeous, lyrical, break-out melody has to wait until Act 2 of Don Davis’ Rio de Sangre, which the Florentine Opera premiered Friday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. The hefty first act and a good bit of the second advance in a freewheeling arioso style borne on a clanging, roiling orchestra. The harmonies swing from tonal to atonal to polytonal. They underscore the relentlessly intense emotions in the story of a flawed Latin American presidente, whose brief reign spells disaster for his family and country. Davis through-composed this opera in a continuous fabric of sound.
Rio de Sangre, in terms of both music and narrative, is not for the faint of heart, but audience faint-heartedness does not fully account for the reaction. The piece and the performance have some problems that are not difficult to identify and describe.
Let’s start with the performance. First, conductor Joseph Rescigno should take every dynamic in the first act down one full level, for two reasons: (1) The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra too often covered singers and (2) the music is so dense and intense that it’s hard to take at high volume for such a long time. At the very least, Rescigno must bring much more dynamic nuance to the score. Second, tenor John Duykers sounded strained and haggard in the demanding role of Guajardo, Rio’s Iago figure in the piece. Maybe it was a one-night issue — it doesn’t take much illness or fatigue to screw up a voice — or maybe he’s not up to the role. But Duykers was a weak link Friday.
As for the piece itself:
First, the scoring in Act 1 could use some thinning. If dynamic shading doesn’t give enough relief, maybe some of the instruments can drop out of the mix now and then.
Second, librettist Kate Gale is a poet by trade, but Rio’s text is prose, with no scansion or strophic repetition. That makes sense with Davis’ through-composition. But what torrents of words! These might be the most prolix characters in all of opera. If Davis and Gale can bear to rethink the piece after years of exhausting work, they could start with a dose of Less Is More to cure the malady of Too Much Information.
All that being said, Rio de Sangre is a much better opera than Friday’s audience thought, for reasons that are also not difficult to identify and describe.
First, the orchestration, though too dense in parts, crackles with vividness and originality. Astonishing sounds rose from the pit. I happen to know that the players grumbled about Rio’s difficulty and about how it is ungrateful for their instruments. From the inside, perhaps they can’t hear how it brings the MSO’s virtuosity to full bloom. It makes them sound spectacular, whether they know it or not.
Second though the music sounds intuitive and varies widely in terms of style, it feels coherent. Davis knows what he’s doing. He embeds germinal ideas, little earworms, in the mix and brings them back in various guises throughout the opera. They aren’t exactly leitmotifs, but they speak to certain moods and underscore similar crisis points. The most obvious one is a low, groaning figure at the start of the overture; it sounds as if the orchestra is awakening after a deep slumber. (It reminds me of this bit of Bartók.) It comes back again and again, condensed, expanded, at different tonal levels, re-orchestrated. It ties the whole opera together.
Third, Davis’ harmony, while gnarly, quirky and fierce as a sandstorm, completely fits a drama that piles horror upon horror. I admire both Davis and Gale for taking their music and their tale to logical conclusions, no matter how dark. They refused to compromise. They are serious people.
Fourth, with one exception, the cast is brilliant. Guido LeBron’s strong baritone is just the thing for Christian Delacruz’s stentorian balcony speech upon ascension to power. From that point on, it’s all about disintegration. LeBron the actor shows a strong, well-meaning Delacruz as he shrivels into a little man in over his head. The creamy luxury of Ava Pine’s soprano, displayed to great effect in a lightly-scored extended solo in Act 2, was a balm for the whole opera. Vale Rideout’s clear, forthright singing, especially in a ringing “speech” near the end of Act 1, exactly described Ignacio, the only honest man in the piece.
Guido LeBron as Delacruz, Kerry Walsh as Antonia. Richard Brodzeller photo for the Florentine.
Fifth, even in this strong company, Kerry Walsh is in a class by herself. Davis goes back years with her, professionally, and understood the nearly freakish capabilities of her voice and her fabulous musicianship. He wrote Antonia, Delacruz’s Lady MacBeth of a spouse, for Walsh. He assigned her jaw-dropping atonal coloratura that leaps to one bizarre interval after another with no help in the orchestra. She nailed it. This wasn’t the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard, but it was the most amazing singing I’ve ever heard, and very expressive.
Sixth, the Florentine’s production team, almost all Milwaukee people, put on a world-class show. Noele Stollmack’s versatile set — a revolving, five-level centerpiece flanked by facades in hot, saturated Latin colors — looks cool and makes for a cinematic flow of action. Scott Stewart’s Florentine Opera Chorus acted with gusto without hamming it up and had great command of an extensive and difficult choral part. Choreographer Simone Ferro devised nifty couples’ merengues for the club scenes and nutty, dreamy, stop-action dances that fit the music’s expressionist vibe. Holly Payne’s stylish costumes establish class and the 1950s. Director Paula Suozzi got the singers to be real actors. And she and fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt worked magic with the scenes of mass violence, which almost always look stupid in opera. In Rio, they are frightening.
Rio de Sangre isn’t perfect. It isn’t what a good portion of the Florentine audience wants to see or hear. But it’s daring, original, creative, ambitious and, at times, thrilling. Rio, with all its faults, is the sort of thing the Florentine ought to be doing.
Remaining performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23-24. Tickets are $28-$108; call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206