By Jane O’Faherty
In the final moments of Chants Libres’ new production of Yo Soy La Desintegración, an exhausted and frustrated Frida Kahlo sings: “I wish I could do whatever I liked behind the curtain of ‘madness’”.
“Then I’d arrange flowers all day long, I’d paint, pain, love and tenderness. I would laugh as much as I feel like at the stupidity of others, and they would all say: ‘Poor thing, she’s crazy!'”
It is an ending that encapsulates much of what has preceded it in this gripping nine-scene chamber opera at Cinquième Salle, which traces the emotional, physical and psychological tribulations of the iconic Mexican artist
With an electroacoustic score by Jean Piché and libretto by Yan Muckle, the work was first performed 20 years ago and draws on Kahlo’s personal diaries, telling the story of the the traffic accident that left her in severe pain for the rest of her life, her relationship with Diego Rivera, among other key moments.
The ever-changing set is what first grabs the audience’s attention. As Frida, played by Montreal soprano Stéphanie Lessard, wanders through her memories of childhood, she sings while hidden behind a curtain of plastic dolls.
Once the plot moves on to Kahlo’s traumatic accident, the curtain crashes to the floor, leaving spectators in no doubt that the innocence and happiness of Frida’s youth has been brought to an abrupt close.
In the midst of all this, the score is wide-ranging – taking inspiration from more avant-garde work from Debussy, but also including some Latin influences.
However, the score is where some audience members may feel isolated. In more difficult scenes – particularly when Frida describes her botched abortion that eventually led to miscarriage – the overriding dissonance works well.
But there are other moments when the score’s harsh sound can be jarring.
The chamber hour-long piece remains confident and assured, however, mostly due to the charisma and control of Lessard, the production’s only live performer.
While other singers may feel burdened by the beautiful yet often cumbersome stage costumes, the soprano commands the stage and the audience’s attention, never getting lost in the short yet complex work.
The result is a strident, engaging yet divisive modern opera. Its opening performance – coincidentally held on the Mexican festival of Cinco de Mayo – inspired some standing ovations and a few walk-outs.
However, the overriding sense one gets from this production is that it is intentionally divisive – perhaps reflective of Kahlo’s art itself.
Yo Soy la Desintegración played at La Cinquième Salle on May 5-7.