CalPerformances 2019 Review: Dreamers

Ana María Martinez Shines in World Premiere of Jimmy Lopez & Nilo Cruz’s Oratorio

By Lois Silverstein

“Dreamers,” an oratorio, composed by Jimmy Lopez, Libretto by Nilo Cruz, brought today’s immigration drama to the stage at Cal Performances, UC Berkeley.

Composer and Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, Volti, a professional vocal and new music ensemble, and soprano Ana-Maria Martinez in the world premiere of the work to an enthusiastic crowd. Commissioned by Cal Performances, Lopez and Cruz created a 45-minute work full of high seriousness and dramatic, moral, and political implication.

Bringing the Dream to Life

Jimmy Lopez, a Peruvian-American, and Nilo Cruz, Cuban-American aimed high: to create a work that at once executed some of the particulars of the situation especially as they refracted the larger, human story within it. Wish and fulfillment is what the dreamers yearn for as they seek to immigrate to the United States.

Lopez and Cruz explain that they prefer to be called “Undocumented” –  and express how they and face major obstacles trying to secure a safe and productive life. Some of the particular and personal difficulties in this quest are detailed through the solo narration – performed by Martinez – and the large Chorus.

The deeply important issue, its vastness and complexity, was expressed by the oratorio only somewhat;  overall, it remained a respectful try.

Six sequences outlined the situation; these trace the inception of the wish/dream through the steps taken to bring it to fulfillment. Each sequence had a particular narrative arc, which is executed through solo, chorus, and orchestra. Subtitles, in English, added an additional dimension not only with their translation of meaning but also in their font variation and color.

Ana Maria-Martinez sang the narration in alternation with Chorus and orchestra. Poised and expressive, Martinez transmitted the hardships step by step. Most effective was the alternation of her singing the narrative with the Chorus, at once rendering the larger scope while pinpointing the particulars. One of the most notable of these was the Children sequence of Section III, and then the naming of the individuals in their particular dramas.

Homogeneous Throughout

The music, despite its instrumental color, and narrative climaxes punctuating it, and the vigorous percussion, remained more homogeneous than not. Whether this was a deliberate expression of the desire for unity or not, dominant unison singing did little to sustain fluctuating intensity. Neither did broad contrasts alone, nor the complexities of the subject matter.

The frequency of descending notes emphasized the strong sense of loss and losing; this, coupled with the plaintive lament Martinez conveyed, however, resulted at times as strident, and more of a harangue.

“I hear America Singing,” Walt Whitman wrote; Cruz says, “This too is America.”  Yes, but perhaps the violence and acrimony could be transmitted with urgency and subtlety.

The fundamental polarity, of course, remained in tact – enemy and victim. For whatever the hardship endured in the process of generating their dream and trying to fulfill it, the difficulties of negotiating that territory was neither included nor suggested.

The two sides of the dream – to go to America, and America as bountiful provider – were presented as entrenched in this dichotomy; what and how the circumstances set the stage for the conflict and the painful suffering that ensued and continues to ensue from it, were not the focus. Consequently, we experience the result of the conflict rather than its generation or its inevitable perpetuation. Unless we see the limits imbedded in its field of conflict, it is less than likely things will change.

So, except for the disclosure of the devastation it creates, which is far-reaching and heart-wrenching, now what we encounter is largely stalemate.

Disclosure and Exposure

However, disclosure and exposure must be the first step toward solution; this is what the oratorio effectively seeks to do.  We are reminded of FDR and the Jewish immigrants on the St. Louis begging for refuge in 1939 from Nazi Germany and the U.S. refusal to grant them asylum; we are reminded how the exposure of this action brought American isolationism to the fore, even before Pearl Harbor.

Some of the complexities and current difficulties Lopez transmitted through the variety of instrumentation; so too between the dialogue of whisper, speech and melody among chorus, orchestra and soloist; and further through the intertwining of lyrical color and sound.

Uneven diction – the text was in English overall – sometimes countered a smooth story line, particular words calling attention to themselves rather than the statement of content. For example, the fundamental human desire to explore, to roam, to move,  too circumscribed by the phrase the “will to migrate.” When the phrase connects more intimately with that human desire, we have a greater chance to resonate with its largest and most profound implication. Rather than this, we find ourselves stopped short debating the language and its connotation. .

“Dreamers” remained most moving, however, when it represented its concrete stories. The mothers, the children, the friends and neighbors – these were the voices we could inhabit. When these particular voices pressed beyond their own borders, we felt less of the drama. That is, although the reach was substantial, and deserved to be, the range remained more circumscribed.

The UC Berkeley Chorus was directed by Dr. Wei Cheng. Volti, SF, was directed by Robert Geary.

Salonen conducted the whole oratorio with élan and vigor, his whole body movement allowing us never to lose him or the music.

In the second half of the program he brought us Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and for an encore, Ravel’s, “Enchanted Garden,” a fitting ending to a fascinating expression of today and once upon a time.


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