Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera closes its 2019 festival with El pasado nunca se termina (The Past Is Never Finished), an opera performed in Spanish that tells a moving story of immigration and the cross-pollination between humans on both sides of what is now the Mexico/U.S. border. The work is moving and inspiring with well-defined characters, and José Pepe Martínez’s music is beautiful throughout. The level of singing is on the very high level that the FWO routinely puts on the stage.
What is strikingly different is that this opera draws on the rich history of mariachi music. Instead of an orchestra, this opera utilizes a large, 15-member mariachi band—the famed Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán of Guadalajara, Mexico—in full charro regalia, standing on a raised platform in a semi-circle formation across the back of the stage; violins are on one side, with trumpets, harp, and a variety of guitars on the other (they also sing in chorus work). “Mariachi” means “band,” and the folk music dates back to the 18th century, with different styles from each region of Mexico.
When the curtain raises, the stage picture encompasses red platforms on different levels, with the mariachi spread across the back platform, three large projection screens whose ever-changing images form the “set,” and the cast distributed on the lower platforms. A soft gasp could be heard from the audience upon this reveal. The gasps become more noticeable when the talented performers sing.
This particular opera is a great choice for Fort Worth Opera in their laudable effort to bring in a more diverse audience, and it’s the second such work the group has staged, after Cruzar de Cara de la Luna in 2017. Hispanic and Latinx people of any race account for about 40 percent of the Dallas-Fort Worth population, and people of Mexican heritage are at least half that. FWO made a similar outreach for more diverse audiences with a production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess to open the festival.
The story is initially a little hard to follow because the superb librettist Leonard Foglia (who co-wrote the lyrics with Martínez) doesn’t like including a synopsis in the program (instead, he writes a superb director’s note). But it’s easy to catch on, even as there’s a leap of more than a century about halfway through the 100-minute, intermissionless work.
The time frame goes from the 1910 appearance of Haley’s comet, then jumps to the present day. The story concerns a wealthy Mexican family on a ranch that is owned by a U.S. citizen. When the landlord visits with his young son (Luis, heroically sung by Daniel Montenegro), the lad falls in love with a peasant girl named Amorita (sung with beauty and some desperation by Abigail Santos Villalobos). Her brother Acalán (sung with stentorian rage by Ricardo Rivera) shoots Luis in a fit of rage, but Luis gets off a shot as well. Amorita is pregnant, and the master of the house offers to take the child under his wing so that he will have every advantage money can buy. Amorita tearfully agrees but says something like, “The one thing he won’t have is his mother’s love.”
The scene changes to present day and to a visit by Enrique (played engagingly by Paul La Rosa) to discover his roots. He is a congressman and a candidate for U.S. President. He has his young son Francisco with him (sung fervently by Francisco Javier Garcia, Jr.). They have a connection to the place, but we don’t know what it is. In the end, the truth is discovered and all’s well that ends well. In both eras, the character Xihuitl (Octavio Moreno) appears, in a costume (by Scott Marr) referencing Aztec deities and comets (in the Nahuatl language, "xihuitl" means "comet.")
I originally saw this production in Houston and gave it a glowing review in TheaterJones. You can read it here. The opera has been touring so this is the same production with the same singers, except for one cast member, that so impressed me then. I see no useful reason to rewrite that review. If anything, the production has mellowed somewhat and congealed nicely into a smoother flow from dialogue to singing. This use of spoken text and music is fairly common in opera; Bizet’s Carmen and Beethoven’s Fidelio immediately come to mind, and contemporary composers use the device more frequently.
The one complaint I have about this production is that the singers and band were over-amplified on Friday night. The sound level for the band was acceptable, but the singers were loud to the point of distortion. This is typical for a Broadway show or a rock concert, but these singers are worthy of any opera stage and do not need amplification.
Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections perfectly capture the essence of the set required for each scene. The excellent band, Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlán, sounded a bit tired but they are exceptional musicians and delivered an accompaniment worthy of any opera orchestra. Supertitles appear in Spanish when they are speaking or singing in English, and vice-versa.
El pasado nunca se termina is a must-see event, with two more performances this weekend.