José 'Pepe' Martínez, the leader of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, began composing the world's first mariachi opera with librettist Leonard Foglia in 2010 on a commission from Houston Opera. The resulting Cruzar la Cara de la (To Cross the Face of the Moon) has been a major success. San Diego Opera, looking to expand its appeal to Spanish-speaking people in the city and nearby Mexico, staged it in 2013.
Combined English and Spanish supertitles have since become the norm for the company. I now overhear many Spanish conversations outside the Civic Center and then inside the auditorium before a performance. I seldom heard any until that first mariachi-opera performance. The audience expansion plan is working.
The company was equally successful in 2015 with Pepe Martínez's second opera, El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished). He had ideas for others but died in 2016 before he was able to write them.
Javier Martínez, his son and also a fine mariachi composer and performer, was invited to follow in his father's footsteps by Houston Opera. Javier teamed with librettist Leonard Foglia as his father had and created El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering), a prequal of To Cross the Face of the Moon.
The San Diego Opera's production of El Milagro del Recuerdo began with a delightfully colorful and vibrant stage curtain depicting a pastorela, or traditional Mexican Nativity play. A mariachi musician entered from the left quietly strumming his guitar. As he did, he was joined by a second guitarist and then a third.
They played while the curtain ascended to reveal three young children at the center of the stage dressed as shepherds kneeling to pray. It's Christmas Eve 1962 in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico, and the villagers are rehearsing a pastorela.
The young shepherds are on a journey to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Aba - baritone Héctor Vásquez - disguised as Satan provides exaggerated campy comedy as he tempts and harasses the shepherds on their travel.
The laughs continued as Chucho - tenor Bernardo Bermudez - portrays Archangel Saint Michael in the outfit of a heroic gladiator who saves the young shepherds in a clash of limp red pitchfork and gleaming steel sword.
This beginning seems more a children's mariachi opera, but its innocence does lead to more empathy with the two families of the story that follows. They must choose between poverty and family separation. The fathers, Chucho and Laurentino - bass-baritone Federico De Michelis - feel they must work in the United States for much of the year to provide for their families, and are back only for the holiday celebration.
Chucho's wife Lupita wants her family to migrate to America, but Laurentino's wife Renata - mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie - just wants her husband to stay in Mexico.
As the pastorela celebration continues, La Mujar (the Woman) wanders mysteriously through the village observing and sometimes offering advice. Mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Paz as La Mujar sang of the Miracle of Remembering in the best truly operatic aria of the work. Her voice carried with a liquid beauty, and the quiet luscious closing notes were greeted with rapt silence, and then an eruption of applause and bravas.
Other vocal highlights were provided by the solid tenor of Felipe Prado as Padre Matías, a Catholic priest who directs the pastorela. Vanessa Alonzo is best known as a mariachi vocalist. Her Lupita was filled with coy bubbly self-confidence.
The three mariachi guitarists were almost always on stage for the under ninety-minute production without intermission. A small number of San Diego Symphony musicians led by James Lowe joined in the festive feel, seemingly ready to abandon Beethoven to tour as a mariachi band.
The simple but effective set was changed smoothly between scenes without a break in the action. Colorful costumes and lighting reinforced moods from somber to festive. A darkly lit scene in which returning monarch butterflies appear as though glittering falling snowflakes was charming. A second cleverly staged scene featured huge cartoon-like stuffed animals strung on a cable across the stage, one of which could be chosen as a present by Laurentino's son.
I don't intend criticism when I say that mariachi opera is far from grand opera, more in the spirit of Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber with a tinge of rock operas by Pink Floyd and The Who. There are more songs than arias, and mariachi rather than symphonic orchestrations.
Whatever its genre, the sellout crowd in the 2967-seat Civic Center auditorium responded enthusiastically to the accessible heartfelt words, melodies and Mariachi rhythms of The Miracle of Remembering, and delighted cheers greeted the cast at curtain call.
Copyright © 13 December 2023
San Diego, USA