Houston — I probably wasn’t the only person who had no idea what to expect when the curtain went up to reveal a mariachi band spread across the back of the stage on opening night of El pasado nunca se termina (The Past Is Never Finished), by José "Pepe" Martínez and Leonard Foglia at Houston Grand Opera. But what a pleasant surprise was in store. The production originated at the Chicago Lyric Opera, where it opened with a rousing success.
The audience had a much higher percentage of Latinos than the typical opera audience and Spanish echoed in the Wortham Theater Center. This is a most welcome, and necessary, trend.
The plot of this mariachi opera was not in the program, and the program notes only hinted and set the situation on the stage. Thus, the audience was able to see it unfold in front of them in the same way it did to the characters in the opera as they experienced the events.
In keeping with the title, the history of two intertwined Mexican families, one the wealthy hacienda owners and the other the indigenous laborers, reached out from 1910 right into a imagined future of a groundbreaking November. Don’t expect plot spoilers here; just know that this is a marvelous opera that just happens to be in the format of mariachi music.
The plot is as touching as any opera by Puccini and the music is just as lyrical.
Because of the format, the opera unfolds as a series of songs. Some are solos and some are duets and ensembles, but all are separated by dialogue. This, of course, is the way that the so-called “number” operas of Rossini and Donizetti are constructed. It wasn’t until later that operas were through-composed. Even then, later operas kept the music and dialogue separation. Two examples are Beethoven’s Fidelio and Bizet’s Carmen. Musicals are mostly constructed this way, although works like Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables helped revive the through-composed trend.
Those unfamiliar with mariachi music, including me, were amazed by the variety.
Many of the songs are achingly beautiful while others unfold with great spirit and verve. All of the musical numbers ably move the plot along on its way to the unforeseen final resolution, which does not occur until the very last moments of the opera. The twists and turns keep the viewer deeply involved in the story; a friend in the audience was moved to tears. “This is my family story,” she said.
The singing is uniformly excellent, even if the vocals are amplified. This is unusual in opera but the way Broadway shows are performed. On Wednesday, it sounded weird in the opera house, especially since there were some problems early on with getting the sound adjusted. But the addition of electronics was necessary because the mariachi band lacks the projection of an orchestra and the singers would be at a disadvantage if only the band was amplified.
All of the voices in this cast are of operatic quality and diction is excellent.
As the patriarch Augustino, Luis Ledesma shows the voice that is launching him to the top of the opera world. Equally fine is Cassandra Zoe Velasco as his distraught wife and Daniel Montenegro as his son, just returned from college abroad. On the other side of the elegant life in the Hacienda, things are very different. Vanessa Alonzo shines as Juana, and Abigail Santos Villalobos gives a sensitive portrayal of her daughter Amoirita. Jumping to the present day, Paul La Rosa does an excellent job as an Illinois congressman, but it is Sebastien E. De La Cruz who completely steals the show as his son Daniel. (He also wowed millions of viewers on TV's America's Got Talent in 2012.)
Leonard Fogila directs. He is familiar to Dallas audiences, recently for his creative direction of Everest, a world premiere opera by librettist Gene Scheer and composer Joby Talbot, given by The Dallas Opera this past season. My review is here. Although completely different, his keen sense of drama and pacing serves him well here.
Projected supertitles follow the bilingual nature of the libretto. The English lines are translated into Spanish on the supertitles and vice versa.
All the action takes place in front of the mariachi band, which is in a semicircle across the back of the stage and on risers. The set is minimal. There is a formal dinner table and chairs representing the home of the overlord. The other workers are huddled on the opposite side of the stage. Costumes are accurate and easily place everyone in their time.
Three large projection screens across the back of the stage furnish the scenery, everything from the starry heavens, such as we never see in the city, to the dry and arid landscape. When in the house of the owners, an elaborate chandelier appeared. All of the projections are effective and convey the changes of location.
This opera needs to be seen—so get to Houston for the two remaining performances, on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. And here’s hoping a North Texas company tries a mariachi opera in the near future.