Fort Worth — Many in the audience didn’t quite know what to expect when attending the Fort Worth Opera’s final production of the 2017 festival, the mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”) by the team of composer José "Pepe" Martinez and librettist Leonard Fogila (who is also the designer and director). Having seen another mariachi opera by the same team, El pasado nunca se termina, (“The Past Is Never Finished”), I was better prepared for this one. My review of that opera is here.
Both operas were premiered by the Houston Grand Opera and have been on a significant tour around the country. Both are chamber operas with few characters, minimal set and authentic costumes. Also, both are about the painful division of Mexican families caused by the American border. In El pasado, the plot revolved around the wealthy and fully Americanized descendants of a hacienda owner seeking to reconnect with their roots and the indigenous laborers that worked for them and still reside in Mexico.
Cruzar is more poignant in that the plot revolves around a truly divided family. Laurentino is a Mexican who now lives in America but has two families, one in each country. Seeking to join him, Laurentino’s Mexican wife and son set off for the border. She dies on the strenuous, and illegal, journey across the desert but their son, Rafael, survives. The coyote guide takes him back to the village and, filled with bitterness, the wants nothing to do with his father. Mark, the other son who accompanied his father to America when he emigrated, only knows a name but tries to find his estranged brother for a reunion before Laurentino’s imminent death.
The action switches back and forth from Mexico in the 1960’s, as Laurentino prepares to go to America, and his life in present-day Fort Worth. Spoiler alert: Mark succeeds finding a recalcitrant Rafael and Laurentino dies contented, with his family finally reunited.
As Laurentino, Octavio Moreno displays a magnificent voice, as does Cecilia Duarteas as his ill-fated wife and Daniel Montenegro as Rafael. Vanessa Alonzo shines as Lupita, and Saul Avalos is terrific as Chucho. Juan Mejio delivers a fine performance as the Coyote, Victor, with a rough exterior but a heart of gold. Brian Shincliffe, as his other son, Mark, uses his beautiful and mellow baritone with his guitar to hold the entire show together.
As you might guess, the audience on Saturday night was significantly more Latino than is usually seen at Fort Worth Opera, which is a significant achievement. The crowd cheered when the curtain opened on the stage with the famous Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán band standing in a semi-circle in front of a red background, across the back of the stage. A shower of paper butterflies descended with a realistic flutter.
The plot unfolds in a series of scenes depicting the big events in the story. The music is not what we have come to expect as operatic in style, which make sense when a mariachi band is the orchestra. Instead, it is more like a 1700’s British ballade opera, with a series of songs surrounding the action, or a folk opera that utilizes known popular songs.
However, the songs are not something simply added in. Each of them reflects on the situation and are quite lovely. Many are as touching as a three-hanky Puccini aria. The final scene, Laurentino’s death, is every bit as emotional as the end of Puccini’s La bohème and many in the audience wiped away tears.
The only problem with the product is the clumsy way in which it is amplified, with the singers and musicians miked, like Broadway shows. In addition, it was noticeably too loud on Saturday, which exaggerated every flaw (such as the cringe-worthy intonation in the violins). It also added a hard edge to the lyrical and excellently produced voices.
Was this amplification necessary? I suspect not. They are all excellent singers and they are not singing over a mammoth orchestra in the pit. After a while, we it was easy to overlook the sound problems and get into the bittersweet story, but an occasionally and particularly shrill note called attention back to the problem. Bass Hall was almost sold out so the possibility of presenting this work in a smaller theater was not possible so this was, admittedly, the best solution (if they just turned it down).
This is a fascinating time spent at a, yes, opera. Opera has always reinvented itself from the medieval mystery plays to modern works like Douglas J. Cuomo’s Arjuna’s Dilemma, a chamber opera which the Dallas Opera will present on Thursday. It combines classical elements with jazz and traditional Indian musical idioms. Hopefully, Western opera will continue to reach out of its genre to include world music elements, refreshing the musical language and reaching out to new audiences.