Musical Notes Graphic

Frida Kahlo was a real person who led an operatic life.

And so her story is appropriately told in the opera “Frida” by Robert Xavier Rodríguez, put on by Long Beach Opera the other night in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Latin American Art.

The painter and legendary lover who became a feminist icon is brought to vivid life in this production, thanks to an innovative presentation, the quality of the work itself, and some remarkable performances.

Laura Viretta in the title role possesses a bright, luminescent mezzo that at once conveys Kahlo’s passion and her pain. Baritone Bernardo Bermudez, as her husband Diego Rivera, is a big guy with a big voice. Both give completely realized performances, singing and acting with both beauty, when called for, and intensity. Both also bear striking resemblances to the real-life Kahlo and Rivera, which keeps their tumultuous relationship, amid the opera’s stylizations and fantastic elements, grounded in reality.

Four singers, Alejandra Martinez, Joanna Ceja, Jonathan Lacayo and David Castillo, take on all of the other roles, and there are a lot of them. The original production used 13 singers and dancers, as well as puppets, and these four may have been given a little too much to do, although they do it well and with terrific energy. They all have young, fresh voices, and act their multiple parts convincingly. Still, Long Beach Opera has used puppets in past productions quite effectively, and one or two might have helped illuminate the action a little more clearly here.

Company artistic director Andreas Mitisek directed with his usual imaginative flair, and devised the rear projections and videos that conveyed the proper atmosphere, not only setting but often commenting on the action at hand. Dan Weingarten’s lighting beautifully enhanced the outdoor setting.

Kristof Van Grysperre powerfully conducted the small instrumental ensemble, and differentiated well the contrasting styles in the score, which is something of a mishmash; I guess the nice word is eclectic. Mexican folk songs, classical selections, Stravinskyian modernism and 1930s jazz all flow into one another, serving to set the story’s era while pointedly conveying the clashes, both romantic and political, in the Riveras’ lives.

Everyone was amplified, and the resulting balances were occasionally a little wonky. And the supertitles were difficult to read when the performance began at 8 p.m.; things improved as night fell.

The Museum of Latin American Art is, of course, the ideal venue for telling the story of a couple of Mexican artists. The murals and paintings portrayed in some of the rear projections are mirrored in the museum’s exhibits, through which the audience passes on the way to the outdoor sculpture garden. The vicissitudes of performing outdoors (sirens, firecrackers, etc.) couldn’t detract from a lovely almost-summer evening.

This opera has been around awhile, premiering in 1991. Trust Long Beach Opera to give this important work its overdue Southern California premiere to cap off what has been a very successful season.

There are two more performances at MOLAA, June 24 and 25, and one in downtown LA, at Grand Performances, on June 23. All performances are at 8 p.m.; for tickets click on or call 470-7464.

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