Brave Debut of Jorge Martin’s Before Night Falls Presents a Few Drawbacks

Cuban-born Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls, published in 1992, two years after its author’s death, captured not only Arenas’s own anguish, but the anguish of his native land’s bitter descent into the hell of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship. It provided the inspiration for a much-lauded movie in 2000. Saturday night at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth Opera presented a third manifestation of Arenas’ journey with the premiere of Cuban-American composer Jorge Martin’s operatic setting.

Martin’s version picks up several strands of operatic tradition, one of the most obvious of which is the use of American literature—a tradition reaching back to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (based on an American short story and play) and continuing right up to the premiere of Heggie’s Moby Dick in Dallas, just over four weeks ago. (Arenas’ Cuban origin makes Before Night Fall, with its climax in the immigrant experience, not just American, but quintessentially American in our nation of immigrants.) It adds to the relatively young tradition of the nonfiction opera dealing with current events, born with Anthony Davis’s X in 1986, and continuing with Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2000. Like numerous other recent operas, Before Night Falls depends on and integrates special effects, mostly in the form of computerized visual images. Equally significant, it draws unabashedly on a buffet of musical styles for an ultimately romantic, intensely emotional effect.

Pictured center: Wes Mason is Reinaldo Arenas in the world premiere opera, Before Night Falls, at the 2010 Fort Worth Opera Festival. (Photo: Fort Worth Opera)

While it’s impossible to guess an opera’s ultimate role in the canon after only one hearing and viewing, Before Night Falls displays several aspects that predict long-term success along with a few obvious drawbacks. Particularly in Act One, words at time overwhelm music. Some pure exposition is necessary, but the libretto, written by Martin in close collaboration with Arenas’ English translator, the late Dolores Koch, often lapses into didacticism at the expense of poetry. The introduction of personifications of the Sea and the Moon, sung by live performers (and beautifully sung, in this case, by Janice Hall and Courtney Ross)was a risky strategy at best, albeit based on some of the more poetic passages in Arenas’s text. On first hearing, it was only partly convincing and at times downright disconcerting.

Rhythmic and melodic gestures of Latin American music abound. In a brave but ultimately successful ploy, composer Martin assaults the audience with a deliberately banal triumphal march for Castro’s rebels, nicely preparing the bitter cruelties that follow. This was balanced by the beautiful serenity of a choral setting from the Latin text of the Requiem mass and the genuinely triumphant music accompanying Arenas’ successful flight from Cuba in 1980.  Twentieth-century-style dissonance figures prominently during scenes of tension and conflict, but beautifully arching melodies reminiscent of Wagner and Puccini are even more pervasive.

Seth Mease Carico is Victor in the world premiere opera, Before Night Falls. (Photo: Ellen Appel)

Wes Mason successfully took on the hugely challenging role of Arenas, a character who is constantly onstage and often very physically active. Seth Mease Carico performed the swaggering, Castro-esque role of Victor engagingly, communicating the inherent initial appeal of Castro’s forces. Jesus Garcia as Arenas’s mentor Ovidio, and Jonathan Blalock and Javier Abreu as Arenas’ s lovers Lazaro and Pepe, were equally impressive vocally and dramatically.

Director David Gately proved his mettle across an even wider range than previously in a production featuring vivid, highly symbolic but always readily comprehensible sets by Riccardo Hernandez, with costumes by Claudia Stephens. John de los Santos’s staging of the extensive dance sequences distilled the essence of innocence, sensuality, and decadence present in Arenas’ narrative.

Main Image: From left: Reinaldo Arenas (Wes Mason) lies dying of AIDS in New York City, with his friend Lázaro (Jonathan Blalock) by his side. (Photo: Fort Worth Opera)