Gabriela Lena Frank’s ‘El último sueño de Frida y Diego’ Travels Triumphantly to San Francisco Opera

Gabriela Lena Frank [photo © 2012 Mariah Tauger]

El último sueño de Frida y Diego, the 2022 opera by composer Gabriela Lena Frank and librettist Nilo Cruz, received an exuberant reception at San Francisco Opera on Tuesday, June 13. San Diego Opera staged the work’s world premiere in October, 2022, but San Francisco Opera is both a co-comissioner and co-producer of this vibrant Spanish-language opera, and it was San Francisco’s turn to share the production with the company’s loyal audiences at the venerable War Memorial Opera House on Van Ness Avenue.

I am happy to report that the reception of San Francisco Opera’s opening night audience of El último sueño was positively exuberant. The only cast member from the San Diego Opera production on Tuesday’s War Memorial stage was baritone Alfredo Daza as Diego Rivera, but this was San Diego’s production: conductor Roberto Kalb brought his expertise from the premiere production, as did stage director Lorena Maza. And Jorge Ballina’s brilliant, colorful set and Eloise Kazan’s radiant costumes filed the War Memorial Stage sumptuously. All of the opera’s vivid scenery and costumes were constructed at the San Diego Opera Scenic Studio and Costume Shop.

In truth, San Diego’s gorgeous production worked better at the War Memorial Opera House because its stage is not as wide as the San Diego Civic Theatre’s grand, multi-purpose stage, and the San Francisco stage proved particularly effective in focusing the opera’s dramatic action.

San Francisco Opera audiences are accustomed to experiencing new works. In September of the current 2022 — 2023 season, the company staged the world premiere of John Adams’ most recent opera Antony and Cleopatra, a co-commission with the Metropolitan Opera and Liceu Opera Barcelona. While I did not attend opening night of Antony and Cleopatra, on the evening when I attended this opera production, the audience reception was positive, but not nearly as effusive as the raucous ovations from the opening night audience for El último sueño de Frida y Diego.

San Francisco Opera assembled an impressive cast for its production. Daza, in excellent voice as Diego Rivera, was joined by Argentine mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as Frida Kahlo and American countertenor Jake Ingbar as Leonardo. Each singer matched the conviction and vocal prowess of their counterparts in the San Diego premiere production—Guadalupe Paz and Key’mon W. Murrah—but Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz took her role as Catrina, the Empress of the Underworld, to another level.

Véliz’s brilliant soprano imbued her character with spine-tingling authority that commanded the stage in her every appearance, and the audience’s reaction to Véliz at the curtain call indicated she was their favored singer of the production.

Lorena Maza tightened her stage direction to fit the War Memorial stage, and Victor Zapatero’s lighting adroitly moved the dramatic action, illuminating Ballina’s vivid sets, especially the resplendent opening scene in the cemetery glowing with votive candles, as well as Kazan’s bright costumes.

Frank’s intoxicating, highly inventive score with its vivid orchestration and supple vocal lines worked its magic on opening night, and it was a pleasure to follow Cruz’s Spanish text projected on the screens on either side of the stage, with the English translation projected on the narrow screen across the top of the stage. Appropriately, Frank and Cruz were vigorously welcomed on stage at the final curtain call.

The opera has traction: Los Angeles Opera will open its production of El último sueño de Friday y Diego on November 18, 2023.

San Francisco Opera presented this production of “El último sueño de Frida y Diego” at the War Memorial Opera House June 13 — 30, 2023. The June 13 performance was attended for this review.

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