Fort Worth Opera fetes the Mexican-American experience in”El pasado nunca se termina”

Sat May 11, 2019 at 1:09 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Daniel Montenegro and Abigail Santos Villalobos in Fort Worth Opera’s “El pasado nunca se termina.” Photo: Karen Almond

Not long before his death in 2017, Mexican violinist and composer José “Pepe” Martínez, composed El pasado nunca se termina (The Past is Never Finished) for Lyric Opera of Chicago, where it premiered in 2015. Fort Worth Opera presented this ambitious and often moving work Friday night in the first of three performances at Bass Performance Hall.

Faced with budgetary stresses and identity struggles in recent seasons, Fort Worth Opera has managed to build a reputation for bold innovation as well as a tradition of presenting new operatic works, while simultaneously reaching out to the growing and increasingly prominent Hispanic-American community in the north Texas region. El pasado nunca se termina deliberately fills both the innovation and outreach categories.

Martinez’s reputation as “the Mozart of Mariachi” arose from an incredible gift for melody, an unfailing instinct for musical structure, and an almost miraculous ability to evoke profound emotion in his music, all of which is evident in El pasado nunca se termina. The idioms and conventions of his particular mariachi style transfer readily to the stage; the traditional mariachi ballad is a close relative of the traditional operatic aria, with an equal emphasis on strong melody and beautiful vocal quality. 

The libretto of the opera, a collaboration of composer Martinez and director-playwright Leonard Foglia, relies heavily on a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet plot, here transferred to the time of the Mexican Revolution of 1910—with a Dickensian twist that turns the story from a star-crossed romance on a hacienda in central Mexico to a family epic concluding in the  prosperous, politically potent Tejano community in Fort Worth.  While the result is indisputably heart-rending in its expression of the painful journey of the Mexican-American community in the United States, character development is thin and plot at times irritatingly shallow and obvious. 

The ensemble Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlàn, a superb fifteen-member mariachi orchestra, provided the instrumental ensemble for the production, onstage in traditional mariachi attire. Four guitars, harp, three trumpets, and seven violins produce an irresistible rhythmic momentum without percussion along with Martinez’s perpetual flow of melody. The instrumentalists also provided the chorus for the opera, with a vocal polish matching their instrumental virtuosity. David Hanlon conducted from offstage, holding the sometimes complex interaction of singers and onstage instrumentalists together neatly. 

Ricardo Rivera, Abigail Santos Villalobos and Vanessa Cera-Alonzo in “El pasado nunca se termina.” Photo: Karen Almond

Although heavy amplification—of questionable necessity in Bass Performance Hall–overwhelmed much of the unique beauty of the score, soprano Abigail Santos Villalobos displayed a gorgeous and powerful voice in the central female role as Amorita, a peasant girl in love with the landowner’s son. The strophic aria “Amorita’s Dream” provided a fine showcase for her both emotionally and vocally. 

As Amorita’s criollo love interest Luis, tenor Daniel Montenegro likewise successfully navigated the overlapping zones of opera and mariachi, particularly in his big aria, “El Cometa.” Vanessa Cera-Alonzo provided a solid mezzo-soprano as Amorita’s mother Juana, and baritone Luis Ledesma performed the role of the wealthy land-owning father with a sturdy, rich baritone. 

Octavio Moreno, double-cast as the aging peasant Xihuitl and as the mariachi leader Pepe, owned two of the most interesting moments of the score. As Xihuitl, he performed the hauntingly evocative “La Cancion de los Aztecas” (“Song of the Aztecs”). As Pepe, he introduced the instruments of the mariachi orchestra in “El Alma de Mexico” (“The Soul of Mexico”), a sort of “Young Person’s Guide to the Mariachi Orchestra,” with an exuberant climax. “El Ritmo de Mexico” (“The Rhythm of Mexico”) was a likewise passionate tribute to Mexican spirit and mariachi music.

Co-author Foglia’s production successfully integrated the onstage mariachi orchestra as an inherent element in the drama; Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections evoked the grandeur of the Mexican landscape behind a simple multi-level set. Scott Marr’s costumes successfully contrasted early twentieth-century landowners, peasants of the same era, and modern Americans and Mexicans. 

Structured in a single, seventy-minute act, El Pasado nunca se termina offers undeniable melodic beauty and raw emotional appeal. In spite of its inherent dramatic flaws, the work succeeds in its goal of creating an extended operatic experience from the material of mariachi, and in memorializing the heritage of the Mexican-American community and its essential role as an element of modern America.

Fort Worth Opera’s production of El pasado nunca se termina will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 pm Sunday at Bass Performance Hall.; 817-731-0726.

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