Davis is a respected composer, best known for his scores for the “Matrix” film trilogy, but who also has a number of orchestral concert works to his credit. Gale is an award winning poet, novelist, and editor. Together, they created the story of ambition and revolution set in an unnamed fictional South American country.
As the opera opens, Christian Delacruz (Guido LeBron) is being acclaimed President of the Republic after having lead the revolution that overthrew the corrupt and brutal Fuentez (David A. Lange) who is taken away to prison. Delacruz’ family, wife Antonia (Kerry Walsh), daughter Blanca (Ava Pine), and son Miguel (Jon Olsen) stand by and rejoice as he gives a stirring and idealistic speech setting the course for the new government. His friend and comrade of the struggle, Guajardo, now commander of the armed forces, also stands in support.
Things go wrong, however, when the country is wracked by an earthquake. Delacruz directs the relief efforts, nobly refusing to divert resources to rescue his son who was visiting in a remote village, but is in no immediate danger. However, cholera breaks out there, and Miguel, though brought back to the capital, is desperately ill and too weak to survive. His death brings one of the most stirring parts of the opera, as the gathered people join in mourning him. Antonia blames her son’s death on her husband’s inaction, the first major rift in their marriage.
Guajardo counsels Delacruz to get rid of Fuentes and his cabinet as representing a continuing danger to the new regime. Delacruz refuses, saying that he will not become like Fuentes was. Guajardo ‘s fears are seemingly borne out when armed gunmen abduct Blanca and murder her fiancé, Igneo (Vale Ridout).
As the third act opens, and Delacruz receives threatening messages from the kidnappers, Antonia veers between worrying over her daughter’s fate and raging at Delacruz. Distracted, Delacruz agrees with Guajardo that they must get tough on pro-Fuentes forces. While Delacruz is awaiting the kidnappers’ demands, Guajardo returns with the news that he has ‘followed orders’ and had Fuentes and his men executed. “Now we are just like them,” Delacruz groans. When the call from the kidnappers comes, demanding the release of Fuentes as the price of Blanca’s life, his despair is complete. He gives into Guajardo and orders the prisons to be burned with the inmates inside, and for rebellious villages to be bulldozed.
The death of Blanca is also the death of Antonia’s love for Delacruz. When he reminds her that she promised to wash the blood from his hands when they began the revolution, she rebuffs him. Guajardo enters, and, declaring his love for Antonia, succeeds in seducing her while standing over her daughter’s corpse.
By this time, the citizenry is in revolt. Riots are savagely put down by Guajardo’s troops. Delacruz, having had time to put two and two together, realizes that he has been manipulated by Guajardo, but it is too late. When he comes to have Guajardo arrested, he is seized and shot instead. Guajardo spurns Antonia, and leaves her handcuffed to her husband’s dead body.
Guajardo mounts the steps to the balcony of the presidential palace, and, order restored, assumes the leadership, using the identical words of Delacruz’ opening speech, as the lights die and the curtain comes down.
The action of the story is gripping, and the libretto, as represented by the supertitles, very literate and thick with unusual, evocative, and often creepy metaphors wherein the people compare themselves to salamanders or cockroaches. The music is mostly atonal, but effective at setting an emotional tone, and contrasts with the bursts of melodic meringue music in the recurring nightclub scenes. The third acts alternation between imprisoned Blanca wondering what will become of her, what happened to Igneo, and where her father is, and Antonia mourning her daughter’s loss, is haunting. There are many subtle touches in the stage direction. In the nightclub scenes, dancers freeze and seem to move only a “frame” at a time as emphasis shifts to the principals’ internal dialog. As the opera goes on, the dancers’ postures become more desperate and torturous, reflecting the deepening spiritual malaise that has fallen over the country. The riot scene was chilling, with moments of violence being picked out as though by photo flashbulbs.
An interesting thing about the opera is that, although conceived and written in English, the piece is sung in Spanish, with a translation by Alicia Partnoy, an Argentinean poet who survived interment camps in her own country. Being sung in Spanish gives the opera a certain extra authenticity as well as musicality.
While far from a perfect work, “Rio de Sangre” is a very worthy and interesting opera which could very well improve in future productions. I would recommend it for those interested in opera and in new music.
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