Review: U.S-Mexico Border Issues Given Voice Mariachi Style in NYCO’s ‘Cruzar La Cara De La Luna’ at Rose Hall
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, January 26, 2018
Billed as “the world’s first mariachi opera,” Cruzar la Cara de la Luna opened for a limited run at the Rose Theater this week, in pretty much the same production seen at Houston Grand Opera (which commissioned the piece and gave its premiere in 2010), Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, San Diego Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. (It has also been produced by Arizona Opera and Fort Worth Opera.) Built around a divided family of Mexican origin that crosses and recrosses the U.S.-Mexico border over a period of fifty years, it promised to be timely, perhaps even controversial. If it fell somewhat short in that respect, it still had enormous musical interest.
Setting aside for a moment the inevitable, if really rather pointless, question of whether it’s an opera at all, let’s picture what a “mariachi opera” looks like: an open stage with a playing area down front and a mariachi band—here, the Grammy-winning Mariachi Los Camperos—on three raised platforms along the back, six violins on your left, guitar, guitarron, vihuel, and harp on your right, and three trumpets in the center. And, yes, they are in full mariachi-gear, with sombreros and studded pants. They are magnificent, not only for their sound, but for their ability to stand for ninety minutes without making a single random motion.
The dramatic action takes place in a series of blackout-sketches, moving back and forth across time and space, mostly sung but often spoken, with or without underscoring—and therein lies the rub. The music, by the legendary composer, arranger and violinist José “Pepe” Martinez, is gorgeous and richly varied, with emotional power that may surprise listeners only casually acquainted with mariachi, while the book, by well-known theatre- and opera-director Leonard Foglia, presents a complex set of social, political, historical, psychological, and familial tensions in pageant-like broad strokes, embodied in generic figures who come across, not as characters, but as situations walking.
There’s nothing wrong with the “concert in costume” approach—some of Stravinsky’s most powerful theatre-pieces almost demand it—but it requires great discrimination in the staging, especially in a piece that’s built around a single binding metaphor repeated again and again. I won’t spoil it for you—it’s a happy thought, and a lovely image—but Foglia, who also directed, stages it pretty much the same way every time, using the same scenic effect. It’s a ravishing effect, but twice would have been enough.
So is it an opera? Well, sure, why not? For all the simplistic plot and awkward spoken dialogue (Lookin’ at you, Magic Flute!), the essential communication takes place through the music, and there is at least one sustained, integrated sequence (here and then here) in which words and music come together to drive home an original, penetrating insight. It comes just before the midpoint, after the men have left for El Norte and the women and children have started to prosper on their remittances. It’s a town full of widows, the women realize, with ghost-husbands who aren’t yet dead, and children who get ghost-fathers one week a year.
Cecilia Duarte and Vanessa Alonzo made this sequence extremely powerful in a recording of the Houston premiere; on opening night at the Rose, they made it the high point of the show. Duarte, classically trained, usually sings non-mariachi opera and early music, while Alonzo, an award-winning mariachi artist based in Houston, normally sings lead with the Latin-fusion group Los Guerreros de la Música. Vocally and theatrically, they walked away with the honors of the evening. Efraín Solís, an alumnus of the young-artists program at San Francisco Opera, had far less to do, but he sang beautifully, stayed scrupulously in character, and did a lovely job of handling essential props appropriately and with meaning. (Again, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but watch Solís in the final tableau: he’s done his homework, and his sense-memory is firing on all cylinders—a nice piece of physical work.)
So does mariachi opera have a future? Michael Capasso, City Opera’s general director, certainly thinks so—and said so, charmingly, twice—first in Spanish, then again in English—before the curtain went up. Who knows? But whatever, this was a nice start.
Cruzar La Cara De La Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), a mariachi opera in one act, presented by the New York City Opera at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall on January 25-28, 2018. Music and Lyrics by José “Pepe” Martínez; Libretto (Spanish and English) by Leonard Foglia and José “Pepe” Martinez; book by Leonard Foglia. Directed by Leonard Foglia; David Hanlon, Conductor/Music Director; Keturah Stickann, Choreographer/Assistant Director; costume design by Cesar Galindo; Gary C. Echelmeyer, Lighting Realizer/Technical Supervisor; sound design by Andrew Harperm. Cast: Octavio Moreno (Laurentino), Cecilia Duarte (Renata), Efraín Solís (Mark), Maria Valdes (Diana), Daniel Montenegro (Rafael), Vanessa Alonzo (Lupita), Miguel De Aranda (Chucho), Miguel Nuñez (Victor), and Mariachi Los Camperos (Jesus Guzman, manager).
Cover: (l. to r.) Cecilia Duarte and Vladimir Vallano in Cruzar la Cara de la Luna; photo: Sarah Shatz.