We may look these days at Mexico as a place of peril, what with drug trafficking, kidnapping and wanton murder. But we ignore Mexico as an arts center at our own peril. When it comes to classical music, we might not recognize our own music had we not once had inspiration and help from south of the border.
Do we need now to be reminded that Mexico City has been an opera center a lot longer than Southern California has been — and that it still is one? We do. Fortunately, Long Beach Opera has done the reminding with its most gratifyingly ambitious undertaking in quite a while: what it is calling the U.S. premiere of what it is calling Gabriella Ortiz’s “Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth.”
The opera was workshopped at the University of Indiana in 2008 and given its official premiere with a Mexico City production three years ago under the title “Unicamenta la Verdad” (Only the Truth). That 2010 production with a new cast and with Camelia la Tejana (Camelia the Texan) added to the title is what reached the Terrace Theater Sunday afternoon for the first of two performances in Long Beach.
We are meant to feel right at home. Camelia la Tejana, who may or may not have existed, is the subject of a hit 1974 song, or narcocorrido, about drug runners, “Contrabando y Traición” (Contraband and Betrayal) by the San Jose band Los Tigres de Norte. After smuggling marijuana across the border in Tijuana, she kills her lover in Hollywood when he leaves her for another.
Ortiz, who is one of Mexico’s most interesting composers with a flair for orchestral writing, is less concerned, however, with creating a traditional melodrama from this obviously operatic subject than in exploring its mythology.
The libretto by L.A. artist Rubén Ortiz Torres (the composer’s brother) is — like Peter Sellars’ libretto for John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” — a compilation from various historical and journalistic sources. The 75-minute opera, in six scenes and performed without a break, is not only a search for the real Camelia but a love song for a love song, as it celebrates what a popular narcocorrido has meant for Mexican feminism.
The opera has a kind of hallucinatory quality, which Ortiz’s music is very good at conveying. Characters who are not easily identified without reading the synopses are news reporters (respectable and seedy), an evangelist who claims to be the real Camelia now saved, a pretentious UCLA professor and other historians who add their two cents, a full-of-himself blogger and an enigmatic woman who really may be Camelia.
Along with all this is the opera’s framing device, the suicide of one of Camelia’s disappointed lovers, who throws himself on the tracks in front of a speeding train and is decapitated. The opera begins with electronic train sounds amplified large.
The orchestra is a small chamber ensemble — with much percussion, guitar, accordion and piano — and Ortiz’s writing for it bursts with exceptional color. She incorporates a wide variety of styles, including a fluent interchange with popular music. Hers is unsettled music suited to the continually changing perspective of her subject.
The production by Mario Espinosa and choreographed by Alicia Sánchez (adapted for Long Beach by Nannette Brodie) takes place on an elevated stage under which the orchestra is seated. Singers and dancers, in mostly Western dress (Gloria Carrasco handled costumes and set) come and go, like fish in the big aquarium next door to the theater, in ever fluid motion.
The result is effective uncertainty, also suitable for the opera’s changing perspectives. Adam Flemming’s video on three large screens doesn’t add much, although the train footage at the beginning and end makes a riveting Cinerama-like impression.
Ortiz’s vocal writing is often more utilitarian than her instrumental style is. Characters say what they need to say with properly exaggerated, and occasionally hysterical, emotion, but they always seem subservient to the instruments underneath them.
Camelia is both charismatically sung (Enivia Mendoza) and danced (Teresa Rios). As the various media folks and academics, John Atkins, John Matthew Myers, Adam Meza, Nova Safo, Maria Cristina Navarro, Susan Kotses and David A. Blair contribute to a compelling overall performance. The Long Beach Opera orchestra and chorus is cogently conducted by Andreas Mitisek.
All in all, “Camilia” is good news from Mexico City. More good news is that Southwest Chamber Music, the Pasadena new music group, is releasing an all-Ortiz CD this week.
‘Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth’
Where: Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $29 to $160
Information: (562) 432-5934 or https://www.longbeachopera.org
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes