Nothing like the exuberant dazzle of mariachi to explode operatic stereotypes.
The shouts and cheers that went up from the sold-out audience Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House said it all. What was billed as the world's first mariachi opera took hold of the crowd in ways seldom experienced at the normally sobersided home of Lyric Opera.
By presenting the Midwest premiere of "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" ("To Cross the Face of the Moon") as the latest project of its Lyric Unlimited program, the company fulfilled several objectives.
It reached out to members of the city's Mexican and Latino communities through an art form many of them had never experienced before. It promoted cross-cultural understanding. It called attention to the multicultural diversity and vitality that help to make Chicago unique among major American cities.
It made potential new friends for the company while exposing Lyric regulars to a more populist form of entertainment than they are used to.
True to Lyric's mission to take new works into neighborhoods where their themes might resonate especially well, the company is presenting four more performances of this bilingual, Spanish-English show in the Pilsen area and Waukegan, beginning April 19.
There's little point in arguing whether the piece, with music and lyrics by Jose "Pepe" Martinez and book and lyrics by director Leonard Foglia, is actually an opera. For me, the stretches of spoken dialogue, some of it underscored by music, put "Cruzar" far more decisively in the camp of musical theater than opera.
Labels be damned. The point is that the collaborators tell a moving story with universal appeal, about several generations of a family divided by circumstance and culture. The story may veer toward sentimentality before the final curtain, but the music, staging and performances are of a piece with its bittersweet emotions and prevent them from becoming cloying.
Not the least engaging part of the show is Martinez's music, which he plays and sings along with the dozen other members of his famed Mexican folk ensemble, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, an annual attraction at Symphony Center and virtual rock stars in their native country. The score consists of 15 or so songs played and sung onstage, tied together by lines spoken by the American and Mexican cast members.
These oh-so-catchy melodies range from wistful ballads to lilting waltzes to jazzy joropos, all spiced by the alluring rhythms and simple harmonies of Martinez's brilliant mariachi musicians. Rather than sitting decoratively atop the storyline, these tunes speed it along, adding their own emotional dimension along the way. And they are all performed with enormous zest and color by Mariachi Vargas.
So smoothly did the action move between the mariachi band – its 13 members commenting musically on each turn of event from a semicircle at the rear of the stage – and the staging at the front, that the Vargas troupe -- dressed in the customary mariachi attire of black embroidered shirts and pants, with white sombreros – became like a Greek chorus singing in Spanish.
The simple narrative jumps between past and present via flashbacks and flash-forwards. We first see the patriarch Laurentino near the end of his life, attended by his American-born son Mark and granddaughter Diana, who confront mysteries from Laurentino's past. We learn that before immigrating as a bracero laborer to Chicago from Mexico some 50 years earlier, Laurentino left behind a Mexican wife, Renata, and a young son, Rafael.
Renata's efforts to cross the Mexican desert with their son to reunite with her husband in Chicago lead to tragedy. Back in present-day Chicago, Mark tries to reunite Laurentino with the latter's estranged son, whose own child bears an uncanny resemblance to Renata. The poetic metaphor throughout is the Monarch butterflies whose migrations between the U.S. and Laurentino's childhood home in Mexico reflect journeys real and imagined undertaken by him and those close to him.
What, exactly, does the concept of "home" mean to family members who have been uprooted and long separated? The question is answered at the end, when the members of his surviving family lay Laurentino to rest in song: "It's my home where the family I adore lives, where love lives." Foglia, a veteran opera and Broadway director, orchestrates his own libretto without missing a dramatic beat.
Just about everyone in the excellent ensemble was a holdover from "Cruzar's" world premiere in 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera, whose then general director, Anthony Freud (now Lyric's general director), commissioned the mariachi opera.
Of the strong singers, a standout was Cecilia Duarte as Renata, whose mezzo-soprano took lyrical flight like the butterflies that flutter through Foglia's simple but effective staging. As Renata's friend Lupita, Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo sang with an alluringly earthy timbre reminiscent of the best flamenco singers. Octavio Moreno won the audience's sympathy as the young and old Laurentino.
Baritone Brian Shircliffe sang and played guitar equally well as Mark. Brittany Wheeler revealed a warm and lovely mezzo-soprano voice as Diana. The supporting roles were capably taken by David Guzman as the alienated Rafael, Saul Avalos as Lupita's husband, Chucho; and Juan Mejia as the Mexican "coyote," Victor. Amplification was used to help put the text across. It was effectively handled.
Audiences in Pilsen and Waukegan are in for a treat.
"Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" ("To Cross the Face of the Moon") will have repeat performances (with Mariachi Aztlan from the University of Texas Pan-American replacing Mariachi Vargas) at 7:30 p.m. April 19, also 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. April 20, at the Benito Juarez Community Academy, 1450-1510 W. Cermak Road. A fourth show will be given at 7:30 p.m. April 21 at Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesee St., Waukegan; $5-$18; 312-827-5998 (Juarez); 800-982-2787 (Genesee); lyricopera.org or ticketmaster.com.
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