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What a night at the Wortham

Moon walk: HGO explores new frontiers in world premiere of stunning, emotional Mariachi opera

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Mariachi Vargas Photo by Al Rendon
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Jose Pepe Martinez Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Oh, what a night at the Wortham! The energy was palpable and anticipation high as Houston Grand Opera offered its 41st world premiere, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon).

Even the orchestra pit was jam-packed with patrons eager to see the world’s very first Mariachi opera, with a rousing score by legendary José “Pepe” Martínez and a poignant libretto from Broadway director and author Leonard Foglia. The space in the pit was free for additional seating because the “orchestra,” the ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitán, appeared instead on stage with the singers. It’s a good thing, since the premiere was sold-out.

Cruzar la Cara de la Luna is a stunning, emotional work, even without the sets and costumes. That is, unless you count the glamorous suits and enormous hats worn by the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitán. Next month the opera will be fully-staged in four performances at Talento Bilingüe de Houston, featuring the Texas ensemble Mariachi Astlan, and with set design by Foglia and costumes by Cesar Galindo. I would confidently predict that it can only get better with more visual appeal.

There are a number of things to be impressed by in this premiere, and chief among them is the fact that as I headed to the parking garage, I was humming a recurring theme in the opera. It seems so simple, that there would be a catchy melody that would stick in my head. But many of the operas premiered in the past few decades have failed in this regard, even ones I otherwise admire. I tried to remember the last time I sang while leaving a performance of a new opera. John Adams’ Nixon in China and Meredith Monk’s Atlas came quickly to mind, and I can still sing melodies from those operas years later.

Wait, both premiered at Houston Grand Opera, even though I saw them in Brooklyn. Certainly, it can’t be just a coincidence.

I am also impressed by the general intent behind this opera. The man at the heart of its inception is HGO General Director and CEO Anthony Freud, who stated in bilingual program notes that, “…exploring the fusion of opera and mariachi takes both art forms in new directions; the piece will allow us to reach new audiences; it celebrates the historic 2010 Mexican anniversaries in a spectacular way; it allows us to build dynamic and meaningful relationships with communities around our city for whom opera and opera companies have typically had little relevance.”

His notes are worth quoting here because they are so important to the future of opera in America.

Thank you, HGO, for admitting there is a problem and then doing something intelligent and creative to help solve it. Cruzar la Cara de la Luna is one of several such “culturally relevant” new operas to be offered in the months to come. The company is launching an East + West project of chamber operas exploring “the relationship between first- and second-generation immigrants, displacement of war refugees, storytelling traditions and cultural inheritance.”

All of this said, an opera can’t succeed as outreach alone. It has to be great in every theatrical respect or it won’t fall into the greater repertory or resonate with persons outside its intended audience. There is much wonderful singing here, and the bright Mariachi orchestration (violins, trumpets, harp and guitars) and endless variation of song forms are irresistible.

It’s not just a pretty work, however. While the scenario grows out of an elegant metaphor, the annual migration of Monarch butterflies, it is nonetheless a story of three generations torn between two countries.

Early on, the men sing of how they’ll have “10 times the money, 10 times the children, because you’ll get 10 times the love” in Texas. “You’ll be 10 times the man,” says one, even if his wife Lupita replies that, “I didn’t marry you to get money in the mail.”

Another aria, cleverly based on the digits of a telephone call, characterizes the subsequent distance in the family as “15 numbers that can destroy two worlds.” Later the women sing of how unnatural it is to have a whole town without men. There is tragedy to follow, even if it is softened by the compassion and acceptance of the family’s third generation.

The cast is unconditionally excellent. Baritone Octavio Moreno, who gave confident performances last season in HGO’s The Queen of Spades, offers a brilliantly complex portrayal of Laurentino. I was quite taken with Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, making her HGO debut as Lupita after many years as a Mariachi singer in Houston. Her lower register is earthy and rich, her soaring upper notes characterized by the utmost clarity. She’s a notable actor as well.

Colombian tenor David Guzmán, also making his company debut, is fiery and insistent, more than capable of holding up under the Mariachi orchestration. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte is the grand diva of this production and subsequently she won a wave of applause at curtain call. Brian Shircliffe is a sophisticated baritone with commanding stage presence, and young and glamorous Brittany Wheeler very successful as the “ingénue” Diana, fresh from her recent HGO debut in Peter Grimes.

Heart-throb Juan Mejia rounds out this talented cast with his emphatic voice and impassioned portrayal of Victor. HGO has made a strong commitment to the success of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna by organizing such a strong group of singers.  

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