Chicago Lyric’s “mariachi opera” offers thin musical salsa

April 08, 2013

Renata (Cecilia Duarte) and Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) with violinists of Mariachi Vargas in the background at Lyric Opera’s “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.” Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Under the aegis of general director Anthony Freud, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has been making a concerted effort to draw new audiences to Wacker Drive by broadening the mission of the venerable Chicago company. Such initiatives include operatic comedy collaborations with Second City, and the now-entrenched post-season mounting of Broadway musicals (Oklahoma! opens May 4).

Sunday afternoon brought the latest such project, with Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, presented by the company’s Lyric Unlimited initiative.

This “mariachi opera” was the brainchild of Freud during his tenure as general director of Houston Grand Opera. Captivated by a mariachi band performance, the British opera administrator said he was “astonished by both the power of the music and the quality of the music-making” and developed his idea “of creating the world’s first mariachi opera.” The resulting commissioned work, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2010 as part of the Mexican bicentennial celebrations.

Clearly, a major motivation for the Houston commission was reaching out to the city’s significant Mexican population, as it is with this Chicago debut. Freud states that he wants the Lyric Unlimited program “to provide a broad, deep, relevant cultural service that will allow us to be of value to the entire community of greater Chicago.”

In terms of community outreach, Sunday afternoon’s performance of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon) was clearly a success. The event attracted many audience members new to the Civic Opera House from the city’s Latin communities who were engaged by the performance, laughing at the humorous lines and enjoying the music and the generational story of a Mexican-American family’s search for its identity.

But even with a fine cast and lively playing by the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, on an artistic level, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna is awfully thin salsa. Despite the attempt to hype the work as a “mariachi opera,” it is in no way an opera. It’s not even a mariachi musical, since even that would suggest some deeper musical expression than the work contains.

Instead, what if offers is a sentimental telenovela-style story interspersed with mariachi songs and instrumental numbers. I’ll leave it to others better versed in mariachi to judge the quality of the music in terms of the genre. Yet while lively and attractive, the music by Jose “Pepe” Martinez (lyrics by Martinez and director/librettist Leonard Foglia) feels padded even at just 75 minutes. The music offers either a rhythmically upbeat mariachi or a sentimental Latin pop idiom, neither of  which begins to approach the expressive depth or stylistic variety of the finest musical theater, let alone the complexity of opera. Even in the slight story’s key dramatic moments, whenever the music stops for a number it’s as if someone dropped a quarter into the cantina jukebox, so jarring and often banal is the music that comes out.

No complaints about the performance or the cast which was superb throughout. Martinez’s Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan provided spirited, rhythmically vital playing with their 13-member onstage band of trumpets, violins and guitars.

All the singers were amplified, which lent a fitful tinny quality to the singing. Octavio Moreno was the standout as Laurentino, singing with a robust baritone and shifting easily from the elder paterfamilias to the younger man in the story’s constant and sometimes confusing flashbacks (the surtitles running consistently ahead of the action didn’t help). As his Americanized son, Mark, Brian Shircliffe showed a warm and refined baritone in his framing song with guitar. As Laurentin’s lost love Renata, Cecilia Duarte sang sensitively in her solo moments if with a raw edge on high notes. David Guzman demonstrated a plangent tenor, and Brittany Wheeler, Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo, Saul Avalos, Juan Mejia and Angel Osorio effectively rounded out the cast.

In the last month Lyric Opera has presented a rotten opera (Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire) as a vehicle for its creative consultant Renee Fleming and a feather-weight mariachi piece, with upcoming performances of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and another comedy night with Second City.

Against this schedule and the safety-first lineup of standard opera repertoire slated for next season, it’s hard to avoid the question as to whether in its efforts to make itself more “relevant” to “the entire community of greater Chicago,” Lyric Opera is, in fact, making itself less relevant as a major American opera company.

Cruzar la Cara de la Luna will be repeated April 19 and 20 at the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen and April 21 at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan.; 312-827-5998.

Comments are closed.