Despite a fine cast, “Rio de Sangre” fails to stir the blood

Sat Oct 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Guido LeBron as Delacruz and Kerry Walsh as Antonia in the Florentine Opera production of “Rio de Sangre.” Photo: Rick Brodzeller.

Meet the new il Presidente—same as the old il Presidente.

The cycle of revolution, toppled governments, assassination and political intrigue in Latin America is the backdrop for Rio de Sangre, a new opera by Don Davis, which had its world premiere Friday night at Florentine Opera in Milwaukee.

Give great credit to this hardy regional company, the sixth oldest in the country, as it opens its 77th season. In an economically straitened era when few companies, large or small, are presenting anything adventurous, Florentine Opera deserves praise for producing its first ever commissioned work, in Spanish no less.

Yet despite a mostly fine cast of singers and an attractive production, Rio de Sangre is let down by its unmemorable music, talky libretto and lack of dramatic focus. When an opera has two onstage political assassinations, the deaths of two of the leader’s children, an earthquake, demonstrations, kidnapping, riots, terrorism, and is still deadly tedious, you have a problem.

As the opera opens, Christian Delacruz is the new leader of an unnamed Latin-American country. He addresses the massed crowd from a high platform, Evita-style, pledging freedom and democracy for all, and resisting the advice of his military confidante Guajardo to execute his enemies, starting with his overthrown predecessor Fuentes.

While Delacruz is a genuine idealist who cares for his wife Antonia, daughter Blanca and son Miguel, he is clearly no saint. He and Guajardo spend much time drinking in a nightclub where the new president’s mistress, Estella, lectures him on not losing touch with the people.

Soon Delacruz is beset by Job-like tragedies: an earthquake that leads to Miguel’s death from cholera, violent opposition from guerillas, and secret treachery by those closest to him. His advisor and Blanca’s fiancée Igneo is assassinated at a cabinet meeting, and Blanca is kidnapped, which sets into motion a chain of events that lead to Delacruz’s downfall.

For all the ripped-from-the headlines relevance and dire situations, Rio de Sangre is a curiously flat and theatrically uninvolving work. The original libretto by California poet Kate Gale is stronger on poetic imagery than incisive drama, with most of the story stopping for extended reflective meditations on past events. Pacing is dubious at best, with momentum continually undermined, as with Antonia’s repetitious grief-laden arias.

Problematic as the libretto is, much of the fault lies with the composer. While Davis has won awards for his concert music, the California native is best known for his television and film work, most notably his scores for the Matrix trilogy. And therein lies the problem.

The music is fluent, polished and approachable, inhabiting a kind of post-Minimalist pulsing lyricism. Yet the unvaried wavelike undulations of Davis’s orchestral writing tend to undermine the drama of the florid vocal lines above.

The vocal writing is cast in an unbroken recitative-like style with few memorable stand-alone arias or moments of melodic distinction. And the sassy Latin-jazz riff for the nightclub scenes only serves to emphasize the lack of vitality elsewhere. Ultimately, Davis’s music sounds like film underscoring to an opera rather than the actual thing.

Perhaps with a more dynamic singer in the central role of Delacruz, Rio de Sangre might make a stronger impact. With his bad glasses and stolid unprepossessing presence Guido LeBron certainly looks the part of a flawed Everyman who becomes the Latin country’s unlikely leader. Yet his baritone is similarly anodyne, dry, burry and muted in coloring, stretched in the upper range.

As the duplicitous Guajardo, the veteran John Duykers also had problems with his role’s high tessitura yet he proved more dramatically effective, his worn tenor somehow seeming apt for this treacherous military leader.

The rest of the cast was largely excellent. Soprano Kerry Walsh as Antonia tackled the stratospheric high notes of her arias with acrobatic facility and aplomb. Vale Rideout as Igneo displayed a vibrant tenor and assured stage presence. Mabel Ledo was an admirable Estella and Rubin Casas showed a strong and imposing bass-baritone as Bishop Ruiz.

The standout in the cast was the young soprano Ava Pine as Blanca. She brought the right girlish charm to Delacruz’s ill-fated daughter and a rich tone and touching sensitivity to her tragic final scene. It helped that this was one of the few moments in which Davis’s music seemed connected with the action rather than running parallel to it.

Noele Stollmack’s revolving unit set proved functional and attractive and director Paula Suozzi moved the action as well as possible, apart from a confusing handling of the earthquake.

The company’s longtime principal conductor Joseph Rescigno drew outstanding playing from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra throughout the nearly-three-hour score.

Rio de Sangre will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee.; 414-291-5700.

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