A heartwarming holiday mariachi premiere with HGO’s “El Milagro del Recuerdo”

Fri Dec 06, 2019 at 4:56 pm
By Steven Brown
Cecilia Duarte and Daniel Noyola star in El Milagro del Recuerdo at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Lynn Lane

In 2010 Houston Grand Opera introduced a genre it dubbed “mariachi opera” with Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, which blended the Mexican folk-music style with operatic voices to tell the story of a family divided across the U.S.-Mexico border. The melodious and touching drama, by composer José “Pepe” Martínez and librettist Leonard Foglia, has garnered a healthy list of performances in this country and Europe.

On Thursday night HGO unveiled the world premiere of El Milagro del Recuerdo. Martínez died in 2016, and his son Javier Martínez joined Foglia to create El Milagro (The Miracle of Remembering). 

This Cruzar prequel focuses on the couple at the center of the earlier work: Laurentino, a Mexican villager who travels to Texas for work, and Renata, his wife.

In Cruzar, the elderly Laurentino looks back to his youth in his native village; El Milagro takes the Wortham Theater Center audience back to those days. The young husband and father comes home from one of his first stints in Texas as a bracero–a Mexican who, in the early 1960s, came north legally under a program that gave laborers temporary U.S. visas. 

Whereas Cruzar depicts sometimes-tragic events spanning a lifetime, El Milagro zeroes in on a single Christmastime, as Laurentino and those around him wrestle with the benefits and heartaches of having him and other men away from home for months. Renata, his wife, is the most unsettled of all, lamenting an existence that feels empty when her husband is absent.

Martínez’s score, like his father’s, unfolds essentially as a series of short, engagingly tuneful numbers–mostly solos and duets. 

Thanks to dialogue so concise that it hardly interrupts the music, the characters’ thoughts and feelings well up in a nearly unbroken stream of melody. Much of it has a bittersweet flavor that suits the characters’ emotional quandaries, but Martínez throws in contrasts that make the score all the more vivid–from Laurentino’s gentle lullaby to his young son to the priest’s rousing retelling of the Nativity story in the village Christmas pageant, which frames the story.

The result is a compelling glimpse into the characters’ lives and feelings. Part of the credit goes to librettist Foglia’s gift for quick, telling details: When Renata tells Laurentino that his she hardly knows who he is after his long absences, he responds by invoking things he remembers and treasures about her–such as her habit of laughing in her sleep.

Doubling as stage director, Foglia brought natural, compelling performances from the cast, so the coziness of domestic scenes and the theatrics of the Christmas pageant rang equally true in Thursday’s performance. And the principals savored the musical and emotional immediacy of Martínez’s music.

Bass Daniel Noyola’s rich, warm singing exuded Laurentino’s dignity and devotion to his family. But Loyola brought more than vocal luxury: He gave the lullaby to Laurentino’s son great tenderness, and his simplicity and directness made the recitation of Renata’s charms all the more compelling.

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, who portrayed Renata in Cruzar’s premiere, returned to the role in El Milagro, giving it an impact that suited the woman’s turbulent emotions. 

When Renata first described how unhappy she was with Laurentino’s absences, Duarte brought the music agitation and tinges of bitterness. But when Renata finally revealed the loneliness inside her–how empty her home felt without her husband–Duarte’s quiet, free-of-theatrics singing went straight to the character’s heart

Mariachi singers portrayed Chucho and his wife, Lupita. Miguel de Aranda filled Chucho’s music with earthy energy. Vanessa Alonzo sang with quiet resolve when Lupita described women’s duty to their families when their husbands are away; Alonzo later cut loose with gusto when Lupita and Chucho showed off the flashy American clothes he had brought home as a gift.

Of the other opera-trained singers, Claudia Chapa as Josefina, Renata’s mother, delivered one of the evening’s most dynamic numbers. Her mezzo-soprano opened up in booming, lusty style to explain that men are driven by their need to provide for their families. 

Baritone Héctor Vásquez–playing Aba, Chucho’s father–pulled out all the stops in his role-within-a-role as the devil in the Christmas pageant, sneering and snarling with glee. But Vásquez also brought a wistful reflectiveness to Aba’s thoughts back to the parents he hardly knew, killed in the Mexican revolution. 

Tenor Rafael Moras poured out ringing tones as Padre Matias, the village priest who relishes his role narrating the pageant. And soprano Vanessa Becerra’s lightness suited the rather mysterious role of The Woman, who sings to Laurentino and Renata in a flashback to their childhood–then reappears in a village shop to sell the adult Laurentino a piñata for his son.

El Milagro’s pit ensemble of strings and trumpets mimics a mariachi band, and conductor David Hanlon directed the group to fill the music with buoyancy and spirit. Meanwhile, the group had a lively onstage counterpart in the mariachi singer-guitarists of Trio Chapultepe, who floated in and out of the scene.

Neil Patel’s sets, centering on arches that moved to establish differing locations and spaces, helped Foglia’s staging move quickly. And Gregory Gale’s costumes complemented the villagers’ simple clothing with colorful, luxuriant costumes for the Christmas pageant, making the finale all the more festive.

El Milagro del Recuerdo runs through December 22 at Wortham Theater Center. houstongrandopera.org; 713-228-6737.

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