REPORT FROM PARIS: When 'La Luna' Crosses the Ocean

 

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From Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Cruzar la Cara de La Luna

(To Cross the Face of the Moon), the first "mariachi opera"

(photo copyrightL Marie-Noelle Robert)



WE LIVE IN a hybridized world. Cars, people, culture. Opera itself is a hybrid art form, blending theater and music into something original. Cruzar la Cara de La Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), the first "mariachi opera," makes sense. Its commission by Houston Grand Opera probably raised eyebrows among some opera elitists who were afraid that their cherished traditions might be dumbed down by the inclusion of "popular" music, as if a certain kind of accessibility were a problem (for some it is – for some folks, complexity equals seriousness).


Regardless, the opera that premiered last December in Houston received solid reviews, and just finished a triumphant, and all-too-brief run at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where I saw it. It's a tremendous and moving work of exceptional melodic beauty. Kudos to Houston Grand Opera for commissioning something so original, and to Théâtre du Châtelet for bringing it to Paris. Cruzar la Cara de La Luna is the work of composer and writer José “Pepe” Martínez, with lyrics by Broadway director and author Leonard Foglia. It's their first opera, and one hopes it's not their last.


The plot is basic indeed. The libretto sketches three generations of a family divided by countries and cultures, and depicts the connection to one’s country of origin and the nature of home that the immigrant experience elicits. The story concerns a Mexican family whose patriarch travels to the United States to find work. He creates another life there after the death in Mexico of his wife and the birth, unbeknownst to him, of a son. Two families grow up in different countries not realizing the existence of the other, until the impending death of the father, who longs to return to his homeland, and who finds it among his reunited family.


The story is simply told – the songs, in true operatic style, exploring the passion of lost love, of lost self, even, in a direct and forthright manner. The simplicity masks a real heart-tugging wallop. The themes of crossing borders, of uniting family, of discovering who and where and what you are and where you come from, are universal, and universally profound. No more so than today, with our fluid borders, our global interchanges, our migratory seekers of solace, refuge and opportunity.


Houston may have a more Mexican influence than does Paris, but here the themes of traveling, of the nature of home and of finding a place in the world enthralled the spectators. How could they not? We are never far from someone who has journeyed in search of a better life, no matter what that entails – money, culture, spiritual growth, survival.


The production in Paris — a bare stage with little or no scenery — was basic but effective. For example, the suggestion of the migratory travels of Monarch butterflies that the opera evokes was beautifully realized by fluttering orange confetti. The focus was on the singers, the story, the sensation produced by this tremendous, emotive music. Onstage accompanying the singers was Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán – a topnotch mariachi ensemble directed by Martínez.


This was not the mariachi many Americans know, that of strolling players at theme restaurants. This was the heartfelt, sophisticated, shockingly melodic music that is direct and brimming with emotions, something that Latin music in particular has no problem expressing. No restraint here, no Anglo-Saxon timidity about yearning.  


The singers were fully present, alive and sympathetic. They included baritone Octavio Moreno as Laurentino, who leaves his homeland for a better, if lonelier, life in the U.S., Cecilia Duarte as Renata, his wife); soprano Brittany Wheeler as his American granddaughter, baritone Brian Shircliffe and tenor David Guzmán as Laurentino's American and Mexican songs, respectively.


At the end of this moving work, Théâtre du Châtelet shook with applause. You could hear weeping (I was not alone in getting teary-eyed), but most of all you heard the shouts of joy at the discovery of something wonderful and fresh. A new hybrid: mariachi opera.



 

Below, scenes from the Houston Grand Opera production (photo: Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera)

 

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Read more Bob Hughes in his Classical TV blog, Hughes Views.