Joseph Rescigno on
Don Davis’s Río de Sangre



  • Río de Sangre is an important new opera full of wonderful things. In this age of operas based on movies, plays, novellas or news stories, we have here a rare bird: an original plot and libretto.
  • Don Davis has a personal musical style that is unmistakably his own, ranging from a wide array of tonalities to written-out jazz. Some parts are very colorful; others are simple and spare. To some degree, I would call it 21st Century Impressionism. Like Der Rosenkavalier, there is a great deal of atmospheric writing that requires delicate playing from the orchestra, especially in tutti passages, so they don’t overwhelm the singers. At other points, there is fine writing for solo instruments. The opera is beautifully orchestrated.
  • It is wonderful to be doing another world premiere and a privilege to be doing the Florentine’s first. The privilege derives from more than my affection for the company. The Florentine is bringing its high standards to bear on this production including, of course, the bedrock support from the world-class Milwaukee Symphony. But this honor is at least doubled, because Río is truly a “grand” opera. This may be a matter of degree, to be sure. But this work is more ambitious than many other contemporary works. It is undeniably grand in its scope and significance.

Musical Sophistication

  • One of the more wonderful aspects of the music for me and other students of composition is that Don Davis uses diverse styles but the music never sounds eclectic. This is because the music so perfectly reflects the drama. The audience can only perceive the work as all of a piece, very much an organic whole. This is no small achievement.
  • The music serves this story admirably from scene to scene, including crowd scenes as well as more intimate moments. There is even a nightclub scene which provides some hot Latin jazz, with the band on stage. This integration of music that is part of the story—playing outside the pit—is a time-honored tradition since the inception of what we call “grand opera.” This is, in a sense, an homage to Mozart, Verdi, Richard Strauss, and other great composers for lyric theater.
  • Mr. Davis uses a Wagnerian technique as well: except for the choral scenes, most of the opera consists of dialogues between characters. Apart from one scene where the young lovers sing together, there are no real duets, trios or vocal ensembles.

The Challenges

  • It is a tremendously challenging work for all involved, and I’m having a wonderful time preparing it.
  • The characters’ development is embedded in the music as much as in the libretto. The five leading roles require top-notch musicians—singers of the highest order, which we have in this production, able to project in the widest possible range and to handle very complex rhythms. And they need powerful acting skills, which we also have in this production.
  • This is the most difficult piece I’ve worked on since Der Rosenkavalier—and worth the effort. The score is rhythmically very complex. It’s hard for the singers, too, in that, apart from a few romantic scenes, where the music is simpler, the vocal parts mostly are not doubled by the orchestra. So each singer really has to know his or her part independent of what’s happening in the pit.


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