Houston Grand Opera 2019-20 Review: El Milagro del Recuerdo
An Enjoyable Family Affair Dominated by Héctor Vasquez’s Hilarious TurnBy Joseph M. Ortiz
In December Houston Grand Opera gave the world premiere of Javier Martínez and Leonard Foglia’s new opera “El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering).” The opera was billed as a “mariachi opera” and only the third of its kind ever produced by a professional opera company.
While “El Milagro” certainly features mariachi music and singing, the work was much more eclectic and hybridized than the marketing blurbs suggested. It artfully managed to incorporate a range of styles, including classic rock-and-roll, Broadway musical, light operetta, Western melodrama, cante flamenco, and Latin American variety show. If one could imagine a revival of opera buffa in the bicultural Southwest, then “El Milagro” would come very close to it.
A Family Affair
El Milagro is a one-act opera sung in Spanish, with a fairly simple plot.
Renata and Lupita are two young women raising their families in a small town in Michoacán, Mexico in 1962. Their husbands, Laurentino and Chucho, spend much of their time working as braceros (seasonal laborers) in the United States. Although Laurentino manages to come home for Christmas, his return stokes an ongoing argument with Renata about his long work trips. The opera’s dramatic tension stems from the conflict between Laurentino’s urge to support his family and Renata’s desire to keep her family together in a changing world.
“El Milagro” is about a family, but it is also a family affair in another way. Martínez composed the opera as a prequel to two other operas, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon)” and “El Pasado Nunca Se Termina (The Past is Never Finished)”—both of which were composed by his late father, José “Pepe” Martínez. Foglia wrote the Spanish libretti for all three operas.
The earlier operas were also premiered by Houston Grand Opera, which calls them the first mariachi operas ever written.
Thus, the opera was very much a civic affair. Appropriately the performance began more like a festival than a formal event.
Instead of a conventional entrance by the conductor (David Hanlon), three mariachi musicians casually walked onto the stage and began playing a mariachi ballad on traditional instruments (guitar, guitarrón, vihuela). These three (Vincent Pequeño, William Carlton Galvez, Israel Alcala) showed themselves to be virtuosic musicians in their own right, and in many ways they formed the musical nexus of the opera. They remained on stage singing and playing for nearly the entire performance, usually in the background though occasionally upstage.
After a few minutes the curtain rose to reveal a familiar Christmas scene. Three shepherds are gazing at the nighttime sky while a humbly dressed priest sings to them, “En el portal de Belén…nació el Mesías (In a manger in Bethlehem…the savior is born).” Eventually a bright star appears in the sky, as well as two angels with halos and trumpets. Satan himself appears, lamenting and cursing the news of a newborn babe who will one day vanquish him. He prepares to attack the shepherds, causing the priest to call to San Miguel (Saint Michael) for help.
San Miguel does not appear—not through any fault of his own, but because Renata (Cecilia Duarte) misses her cue. At this point the “scene” is revealed to be a rehearsal for a Christmas show being put on by the residents of Michoacán, under the direction of the town priest, Father Matías (Rafael Moras).
The rehearsal quickly devolves into chaos as Renata storms off, distracted and frustrated by her own family problems. Most of the rest of the opera alternates between the Christmas show rehearsals and Renata’s strained relationship with her husband Laurentino (Daniel Noyola).
The performances by the principal singers offered an enlightening lesson on the affinities—and differences—between mariachi and operatic styles of singing. In general the most effective singers were those who could move between both styles with ease.
Moras and Héctor Vasquez (who sang Aba, Chucho’s father) were especially impressive in this regard. Vasquez’s resonant, controlled baritone was very appropriate for his declamatory passages, as when he reflects on his old age in an tender duet with Father Matías.
At other times, as when he plays Satan in the pastorella, he deftly switched to a much brighter tone. In a conventional operatic context this brightness might have sounded shrill or tinny, but here it was well matched to Martínez’s mariachi style of composition, which often features violins and trumpets playing in unison in a high register.
By contrast, Vanessa Becerra (who sang La Mujer, a mysterious woman whose identity is never fully explained) seemed to inhabit a different sonic universe than the others. Her steady vibrato and precise intonation would be admirable in a conventional Romantic opera. But mariachi singing often calls for glissando-like shaping of syllables—a kind of “scooping” that normally gets opera singers lambasted. As a result, Becerra’s tone occasionally sounded flat against the mariachi instrumental scoring.
David Hanlon’s conducting was expert in every regard. Having conducted José Martínez’s “Cruzar” in 2018, he already had experience with mariachi opera—and it showed. He seemed entirely comfortable leading the pit’s chamber-sized mariachi orchestra (fifteen strings and trumpets), and he was especially good at emphasizing the Mexican dance rhythms that are the heart of the genre.
Hanlon knew when to switch gears as well. In the lullaby sung by Renata and Laurentino, “Duerme hijo mio,” Martínez incorporates echoes of Schubert’s Ave Maria. Hanlon elicited here a more classical sound from the orchestra without abandoning its Latin timbres. Moments like this surprised me by demonstrating the remarkable adaptability of the mariachi style to a range of different musical genres.
In fact, hybridity and cultural mixing is a running theme in El Milagro.
“Una Chica Americana” (American Girl)” was a spirited duet between Lupita (Vanessa Lonzo) and Chucho (Miguel De Aranda) that mimicked 1960s rock-and-roll songs. The duet gave a humorous turn to Mexican stereotypes about Americans, who purportedly wear gold suits and drive Cadillacs.
This Mexican perspective had its sober moments, too. When Chucho tries to persuade Lupita to move to America, she reminds him that he once said “todo el mundo te menosprecia, que nunca podrías pertenercer allá (everyone looks down on you, that you could never belong there).” For this Houston audience, which included many Mexican-Americans, the moment offered a rare glimpse of the conflicted feelings toward the opportunities promised by America to its Southern neighbors—both in 1962 and 2019.
This is not to say that “El Milagro is probing social commentary. The opera was light Christmas fare, and its issues were treated simply. The plot of Renata and Laurentino’s marital conflict eventually became wearying, even though the opera only ran an hour and a half.
Interestingly, the most satisfying moments were the scenes of the Christmas play rehearsals. It was in these scenes that the opera was able to indulge its melodrama and campiness without restraint—and the result was absolutely entertaining.
Vasquez’s Satan was a brilliant comic creation, hovering somewhere between a lucha libre wrestler and a Sábado Gigante sketch character. In one rehearsal Satan (the elderly Aba) is cast to the ground by Saint Miguel. For a moment things seem to take a tragic turn when Aba remains on the ground after the scene has ended. Father Matías rushes to him, thinking the worst—but all is well. Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Aba rises up. With a line that got the biggest laugh of the night, he proclaims “Satanás vive!” (“Satan lives!”). To which a relieved Father Matías responds, “Qué bueno.”
Aba, we learn, is a veteran actor who has performed all the play’s roles over his lifetime. But Satan is his final tour de force, and it happens to be the one that best embodies the operatic vitality of “El Milagro.” At one point the 11-year-old Silvio (Nhedrick Jabier), who has been cast as a shepherd, enviously pines “yo quiero ser un diablo (I want to be a devil).” It was not hard to see why.