Tom Strini

The Florentine’s “Rio de Sangre”

By - Oct 23rd, 2010 01:57 am

The climactic riot in Don Davis’ “Rio de Sangre.” Jay Westhauser photo for the Florentine Opera.

Gorgeous, lyrical, break-out melody has to wait until Act 2 of Don Davis’ Rio de Sangre, which the Florentine Opera premiered Friday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. The hefty first act and a good bit of the second advance in a freewheeling arioso style borne on a clanging, roiling orchestra. The harmonies swing from tonal to atonal to polytonal. They underscore the relentlessly intense emotions in the story of a flawed Latin American presidente, whose brief reign spells disaster for his family and country. Davis through-composed this opera in a continuous fabric of sound. No distinct, hummable tunes rise from the flow.

No tunes+lots of dissonance+bad guy wins = Friday’s intermission grumbling and tepid audience reaction at the end.

Rio de Sangre, in terms of both music and narrative, is not for the faint of heart, but audience faint-heartedness does not fully account for the reaction. The piece and the performance have some problems that are not difficult to identify and describe.

Let’s start with the performance. First, conductor Joseph Rescigno should take every dynamic in the first act down one full level, for two reasons: (1) The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra too often covered singers and (2) the music is so dense and intense that it’s hard to take at high volume for such a long time. At the very least, Rescigno must bring much more dynamic nuance to the score. Second, tenor John Duykers sounded strained and haggard in the demanding role of Guajardo, Rio’s Iago figure in the piece. Maybe it was a one-night issue — it doesn’t take much illness or fatigue to screw up a voice — or maybe he’s not up to the role. But Duykers was a weak link Friday.

As for the piece itself:

First, the scoring in Act 1 could use some thinning. If dynamic shading doesn’t give enough relief, maybe some of the instruments can drop out of the mix now and then.

Nightclub scene choreography by Simone Ferro. Richard Brodzeller photo for the Florentine Opera.

Second, librettist Kate Gale is a poet by trade, but Rio’s text is prose, with no scansion or strophic repetition. That makes sense with Davis’ through-composition. But what torrents of words! These might be the most prolix characters in all of opera. If Davis and Gale can bear to rethink the piece after years of exhausting work, they could start with a dose of Less Is More to cure the malady of Too Much Information.

All that being said, Rio de Sangre is a much better opera than Friday’s audience thought, for reasons that are also not difficult to identify and describe.

First, the orchestration, though too dense in parts, crackles with vividness and originality. Astonishing sounds rose from the pit. I happen to know that the players grumbled about Rio’s difficulty and about how it is ungrateful for their instruments. From the inside, perhaps they can’t hear how it brings the MSO’s virtuosity to full bloom. It makes them sound spectacular, whether they know it or not.

Second though the music sounds intuitive and varies widely in terms of style, it feels coherent. Davis knows what he’s doing. He embeds germinal ideas, little earworms, in the mix and brings them back in various guises throughout the opera. They aren’t exactly leitmotifs, but they speak to certain moods and underscore similar crisis points. The most obvious one is a low, groaning figure at the start of the overture; it sounds as if the orchestra is awakening after a deep slumber. (It reminds me of this bit of Bartók.) It comes back again and again, condensed, expanded, at different tonal levels, re-orchestrated. It ties the whole opera together.

Third, Davis’ harmony, while gnarly, quirky and fierce as a sandstorm, completely fits a drama that piles horror upon horror.  I admire both Davis and Gale for taking their music and their tale to logical conclusions, no matter how dark. They refused to compromise. They are serious people.

Fourth, with one exception, the cast is brilliant. Guido LeBron’s strong baritone is just the thing for Christian Delacruz’s stentorian balcony speech upon ascension to power. From that point on, it’s all about disintegration. LeBron the actor shows a strong, well-meaning Delacruz as he shrivels into a little man in over his head. The creamy luxury of Ava Pine’s soprano, displayed to great effect in a lightly-scored extended solo in Act 2, was a balm for the whole opera. Vale Rideout’s clear, forthright singing, especially in a ringing “speech” near the end of Act 1, exactly described Igneo, the only honest man in the piece.

Guido LeBron as Delacruz, Kerry Walsh as Antonia. Richard Brodzeller photo for the Florentine.

Fifth, even in this strong company, Kerry Walsh is in a class by herself. Davis goes back years with her, professionally, and understood the nearly freakish capabilities of her voice and her fabulous musicianship. He wrote Antonia, Delacruz’s Lady MacBeth of a spouse, for Walsh. He assigned her jaw-dropping atonal coloratura that leaps to one bizarre interval after another with no help in the orchestra. She nailed it. This wasn’t the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard, but it was the most amazing singing I’ve ever heard, and very expressive.

Sixth, the Florentine’s production team, almost all Milwaukee people, put on a world-class show. Noele Stollmack’s versatile set — a revolving, five-level centerpiece flanked by facades in hot, saturated Latin colors — looks cool and makes for a cinematic flow of action. Scott Stewart’s Florentine Opera Chorus acted with gusto without hamming it up and had great command of an extensive and difficult choral part. Choreographer Simone Ferro devised nifty couples’ merengues for the club scenes and nutty, dreamy, stop-action dances that fit the music’s expressionist vibe. Holly Payne’s stylish costumes establish class and the 1950s. Director Paula Suozzi got the singers to be real actors. And she and fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt worked magic with the scenes of mass violence, which almost always look stupid in opera. In Rio, they are frightening.

Rio de Sangre isn’t perfect. It isn’t what a good portion of the Florentine audience wants to see or hear. But it’s daring, original, creative, ambitious and, at times, thrilling. Rio, with all its faults, is the sort of thing the Florentine ought to be doing.

The remaining performance begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24. Tickets are $28-$108; call the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206.

If you were there, you probably have an opinion. Share it in the comment box below.

More Singing News: Click here for the results of Saturday’s Wisconsin Met Auditions.

0 thoughts on “Review: The Florentine’s “Rio de Sangre””

  1. Anonymous says:

    What kind of comment will make the win?

  2. Anonymous says:

    The first five, Choir Crone. So congratulations, you insomniac! Please email me at so we can make connections. — Strini

  3. Anonymous says:

    Size XL for me:)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Tom, I agree with your comments about the orchestration. It seems like Mr. Davis’ film background got in the way of theatre music tonight. Wonderful sounds and textures to be sure, but I found myself leaning forward (along with everyone else in the center loge) to try to divine some singers from the mix.

    Also, the first act’s book felt clunky to me. The exposition seemed a bit to drawn out and the relationship between Antonia and her children didn’t seem to matter until they were dead or in peril. I’m at a show called “River of Blood”. Just get to it!

    Overall, it seems to be a work worth polishing. There’s much to enjoy about it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    What if I don’t see the opera till Sunday? Can I still get a sweet t-shirt?

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ohhhh, Sammi D, you litigious, hair-splitting, system-gaming, Rio-de-Sangre-T-shirt-wearing wiseguy… yes. And anyone who comments at 3:13 a.m. deserves a shirt.– Strini

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the analysis, good background for seeing the show on Sunday!

  8. Anonymous says:

    As with any New opera, there will be audience aversion.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Holy moly! Sounds like quite a performance. Bravo Florentine for having the guts and fortitude to put up a new and challenging show. Wish I was in the state to come see it, but I will encourage my friends to go!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Wow, you nailed it. It was quite an unusual undertaking for the Florentine but, it’s good to see they are open to new things too. You definitely did not go home humming any tunes. The chorus was great!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Daughter’s going tomorrow (her allowance–her desire). Your review’s helpful to frame up the experience. Think we’ve seen the shirt worn by a member of the chorus–she’s mad for it, if you’ve any left . . . Thanks!

  12. Anonymous says:

    And the T-Shirt Winners Are:
    Choir Crone, David Bonfilgio, Sammi D, Green Pony and Susan Gottschalk.I will email all of you to make arrangements. — Strini

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Mr Strini. This was your best, most insightful review I’ve read. The music certainly had a dream-like quality and your comment about “less is more” couldn’t have been more appropriate.

    I thought Don Davis’ score was fresh enough to dispel the stigma attached to modern music/opera; the dedication and enthusiasm of the entire cast and crew was quite apparent.

    Bravo Florentine, for having the guts to mount such a piece, and to you, Mr Strini, for your objective insight.

  14. Anonymous says:

    This was probably the fairest review I’ve ever read. The evening’s standout performances were the score, the orchestra, and the chorus. It was a richly textured tapestry. Unfortunately, you don’t go to the opera to only hear the orchestra. It could have been softer so we could hear the singers. When John Duykers (Guajardo) was booed at the curtain calls, my partner and I were aghast, but we both agreed it was warranted. The first part could have been a little tighter and the poetry of the prose could have been a little less dense, but the tender emotions that came out of the second act were truly beautiful. As ever, the acting could have been a bit better, but musically it was truly beautiful. All in all, thank you for a fair and insightful review.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Vale Rideout’s Igneo was pretty good, too. :^)

  16. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the insightful and balanced review. And thanks to the Florentine for bringing such fine and innovative work to Milwaukee.

  17. Anonymous says:

    We will be attending the Sunday performance. I appreciate what sounds like a balanced review. We are particularly excited as this is my niece’s professional opera debut as a member of the chorus. I hope it is a wonderful experience for her. I also hope they have t-shirts for sale at the performance. I have not seen them, but they sound interesting. It will be nice to get t-shirts for family members that live out of town and will not be able to attend. Thanks to your review I feel I will be better prepared to appreciate this opera. Sincerely, M.

  18. Anonymous says:

    From the Chicago Tribune: “It’s hard to fathom what prompted the Florentine Opera, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected regional opera companies, to throw its resources behind so flimsy and misbegotten a work as ‘Rio de Sangre’ (‘River of Blood’).”

    You say this work isn’t what many patrons want to see, but that the Florentine ought to keep doing that “sort of thing.” That sounds like a recipe for fiscal disaster.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Good review Tom, very balanced. I saw the Saturday evening performance and I thought the opera had good aspects of all necessary operatic components: orchestration (very trance-inducing like the music from the movie The Shining, which includes some Bartok), acting, dance, sets (excellent for conveying all aspects of the plot line) and singing. Clearly, the latter was more challenging for the usual opera crowd (it was no Barber of Seville!). I’m struck how recent Milwaukee theatrical events like Cabaret at the Rep and this Rio de Sangre are in a timely manner capturing the “the descent into madness” that politics can bring on.

    PS to one comment above, the villain is often booed at the end of an opera regardless of their singing prowess, in recognition of their portrayal of evil.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Tom – Your observations were right on target, although I wonder whether I should have read them before attending Saturday. Your critique underscored the weaknesses and may have increased my annoyance with aspects of the performance. The Philip Glass-like ostinato pressed the music along without regard for mood. The lyrics seemed to have been written after the music. The emotional path of the lyric often was contradicted by the emotional pattern in the music.

    I particularly like Ava Pine as Blanca. Kerry Walsh mastered her material, but faced the audience most of the time – rarely interacting with other players. Some of the balance problem could have been addressed by miking the singers rather than just the Merengue band!

    The transition in Act III after the intermission was dramatic. The orchestra pulled back to allow the drama to develop on the stage, the music and the singing matched the moment and the lyrics were shorter and more poetic. The voicing was melodic rather than a declarative recitative. This should have set the standard for the whole performance.

    By the third act we had inhabited the world Davis and Gale created for some time, so we knew what to expect. This was a Greek tragedy – with none of the respite we expect to be built into a theatrical package. It may not have been comfortable, but it made sense. I would have changed the book in one small way. Guajaro did not need to be painted as a scheming villain. It was enough for him to act by instinct from a military mindset, unaware of the full consequences of his actions. The ending would have been more tragic had Guajaro selected a young citizen to front the new regime, rather than taking the leadership for himself.

    I’d like to see the Florentine continue to explore new challenges.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Tom’s review – very fair and accurate. And I really hope John Duykers (Generalissimo Guajardo) understands that we booed him not for a bad performance, but for his excellent performance as a really believable BAD GUY!

  22. Anonymous says:

    Tom – A beautiful, insightful review, as usual.
    A fine, edgy product for the Flourentine Opera. But I believe you are too generous. This work, I feel, needs more skillful direction of the actor-singers – except perhaps for Kerry Walsh, who demonstrated strong acting skills along with her powerful vocal abilities – while Guido LeBron’s beautiful voice could not make up for his wooden performance.
    Finally, a long evening devoted to endless suffering needs some serious editing.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I was up until 1 AM after seeing Saturday’s performance. It was like some opera thought bomb had exploded. The piece was simply so dense with information of all sorts: rich, unceasing, orchestral textures, words that flowed in torrents, nearly impossible feats of singing. I don’t know what it’s future will hold, but I’m glad I got to see it and I’m grateful that the Florentine had the guts to premiere it.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Thanks everyone, for commenting, and for keeping the discussion thoughtful and civil. — Strini

  25. Anonymous says:

    So Jeff Reed is gone. He was way too erratic this season. Well, it’s an opportunity for a young kicker to prove his mettle and kick for the…

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