Cecilio Valdés, King of Havana – Review

[This review is based on mere snippets of the overall opera. The performance was part of the New Works Sampler at the 2012 Opera America Conference. Click here to find all of the works showcased at the conference or please find them at the end of this review.]

And we’re off – the very first work of the night. This is an opera in two acts with music by Paquito D’Rivera and lyrics by Enrique Del Risco and Alexis Romay. Singer, Cecilio Valdés, becomes the King of Havana within an underground music scene (think speakeasy superstar of the 1920s like Duke Ellington except the government isn’t solely pushing prohibition, but destruction of all civil rights). The music starts off with two arias, which, I assumed, stood as the first two scenes of the story. The ultra-suave stylings of the first number were alluring and sexy. Mezzo-soprano, Katherine Pracht, sang with all the sultry twang required to transport us to the oppressed isle of Cuba. Her light instrument is full of bright colors and dynamic agility.

The next number followed effortlessly as it continued the easy-going island nuance. Evelyn Santiago’s velvety soprano was a perfect fit for the mood. The flow of her substantially lyrical vocal line paired excellently with the heavy 1 and 3 accents in the accompaniment. The range of the orchestration (mind you, it was played on the piano) was glorious! So much color and life danced off of the keys – a bit of Spanish flare on a Viennese scale. Both of these numbers felt like cross between Germanic art song with their slow, methodical musings and a Viennese operetta (the latter being quite an influence on Zarzuela). Even the melodic line itself felt speech-like, lending a very real and intimate sense to the drama. A bit more dynamic and thematic contrast might need to be considered in the first three and half numbers as the sultry island feel and variety of creamy ascending arpeggios became a bit overdone. Could there be an overture or short instrumental interlude between the numbers to establish the feel of Cuba so that more focus on supporting the drama can be achieved during the actual singing? (unless of course the repetition in the accompaniment was meant to be a wave-like pattern of a nearby beach, and in which case – Oo la la!).

The third number started the same as the first two, cool and breezy. This scene summons the action of General Gamboa, father of Patricia. Patricia is the soon to be lover of Valdés, but is also betrothed to the nephew her father’s wealthy Spanish business partner. The General was sung by baritone Eric Dubin with beautiful depth and tone, but he sang without a true intention in his sound and lacked consistent support on his top. Aural satisfaction was obtained upon the fourth number as the duet between the General and Mercedes Valdés threw an enticing new dynamic to the piece. The interaction and transition of characters by use of interjectory and nearly interruptive dialogue was masterful! As soon as one sung phrase ended the other went off into their own vice as if they were in an argument and neither one was really listening to the other. This drove the piece to an exciting new dramatic level. D’Rivera avoided too much tonic redundancy with clever endings to the phrases of the orchestra (again, this was with piano). Take for instance the ascending flurry after “Such pain, such pain” was sung – what a great exclamation point! Toward the middle of the number, Dubin delivered a quasi-recit portion very well, but had me tilting my head to the side like a confused terrier during a spoken Spanish moment at the end. Friendly tip: immerse thyself in language, immerse thyself. Boosey and Hawkes’ new undertaking seems relevant and fun and we wish them buena suerte!

More Reviews from the New Works Sampler

Oceanic Verses

Beth Morrison Projects has been getting some seriously cool press as of late and I couldn’t help but be quite anxious to receive one of her new projects… Read More »


On to the third selection in the program – a co-comissioned piece by The Santa Fe Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia that “tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years… Read More »

La Reina

Stealing the show was American Lyric Theater’s (ALT) new project, La Reina, by Jorge Sosa and screenwriter Laura Sosa… Read More »


Love/Hate is a comical fantasia that seeks to expose love’s “old paradox for a new era” by wildly portraying all stereotypical situations of relationships and enacting them simultaneously among four key characters… Read More »

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