Despite no catchy arias, ‘Before Night Falls’ breaks ground with its beautiful production, gay erotic undertone and star-making performance
Oh, the curse of modern opera: That dissonance, especially in the vocal arrangements, that almost always robs a score of beauty. Atonality is fine and dandy in doses, but whatever happened to just a pretty song? Name an aria from a modern opera with its cacophonous, anti-intuitive progressions; now think of "Nessum Dorma" or "Dalla Sua Pace" and how soaring and evocative the notes are.
Operas nowadays need more hooks. There’s a reason pop music doesn’t include much opera. What’s so wrong with being radio-friendly?
My complaint is more serious with respect to Before Night Falls precisely because, as a whole, this world premiere opera from composer Jorge Martin is such a beautiful and refreshing work, dealing with contemporary issues like AIDS and the politics of gay rights so maturely and thoughtfully, that you want it to have a populist appeal beyond well-heeled concert halls.
Based on Reinaldo Arenas’ memoir of the horrors of gay life in Castro’s Cuba, Martin’s orchestral score is a pastiche of styles, capturing the tone and energy throughout the arc of Arenas’ life: It opens with Arena (Wes Mason) dying of AIDS in 1990 to strains that could be from a classic film noir, then seamlessly transitions to the sunny, playful excitement of rural life that could be from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, then segues into Caribbean beats and the patriotic fervor of Communist propaganda. The music is a journey in itself.
Too bad, then, that the songs just miss the mark, such as the close harmonies of a duet between Mason and Jesus Garcia that takes odd, anti-melodic turns at just the wrong moments. But if that infernal atonal bent is unavoidable, at least we have Mason in a captivating, powerful performance as Rey.
Mason — at 25, strikingly handsome and making his major-role professional debut — has a strong, clear voice brimming with emotion. But he’s also a superlative actor, who conveys Rey’s breathless, ecstatic love of life and poetry with heart-breaking truth.
Credit as well director David Gately and choreographer John de los Santos for tastefully but unflinchingly expressing the erotic discovery of gay romance in a way foreign to most opera — hell, most theater, period. For courage alone, Before Night Falls would warrant attention; happily, it wins on the merits of its production as well.
Bass Hall, 535 Commerce St., Fort Worth. June 6 at 2 p.m. FWOpera.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 04, 2010.