In style, theme, and substance, the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To cross the face of the moon) spans boundaries.
First mounted by Houston Grand Opera in 2010 — and now in a West Edge Opera production at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland through Aug. 5 — the work tells the story of a Mexican family ruptured and ultimately renewed by the decision to immigrate to the U.S. to seek an ostensibly better and bigger life. It does so in a popular musical language not previously used in opera. Time and space are bridged in the process, as the action in Leonard Foglia’s bilingual libretto shuttles back and forth between a Mexican village 50 years ago and present-day Houston.
The West Edge staging affirms Cruzar as a piece at once poetically touching and timely. Now as much as ever, the U.S.-Mexico border is a locus of aspiration, agony, and individual lives subsumed by politics. The opera, to its credit, has no agenda other than the affecting and immediate one of dramatizing human separation, loss, yearning, and reconciliation. The audience can provide its own contextualizing view of the immigration issue.
If the mariachi idiom lacks a certain expressive and stylistic range, José “Pepe” Martinez’s score is rich in plangent duets and larger ensembles. The vocal harmonies, by turns urgent, plaintive, and nostalgic, played out over softly strummed guitars, muted trumpets, and murmuring violins, form the opera’s openhearted core and appeal. In these recurring musical connections, Cruzar conveys the power of love and community, even when ties are strained and in one instance tragically snapped. Some overamplification of the singers at the start of Sunday’s performance gave way to a more nuanced balance later on.
The story opens in the present, where an aging Laurentino (an excellent Efraín Solís) lies near death, attended by his son Mark (Bernardo Bermudez) and granddaughter Diana (Aléxa Anderson). As his thoughts drift back a half century, the old man becomes his younger self back in Mexico. Solis’s transformation, in bearing and notably with his vocal timbres, make the passage from present to past and back vivid and convincing.
Persuaded in a boisterous, macho-infused duet with his friend Chucho (Moisés Salazar) to becomes “10 times the man” by moving north, Laurentino leaves his wife Renata (Kelly Guerra) and family behind to seek his fortune. Renata decides to follow, with their young son Rafael in tow, but tragedy strikes when she dies on the trip. Guerra, whose acting is stronger than her singing, gives her every scene emotional resonance and dimension.
The narrative, which covers lots of ground in 90 well-honed minutes, reaches its climax when the adult Rafael (Sergio González, his lush voice full of impacted pain and fragility) finally meets both the father he never knew and the extended American family he never knew of. Fittingly, in director Karina Gutiérrez’s production, the nine musicians of the San José-based Mariachi Azteca, who have remained at the fringes of the raked set’s undulating paths, come downstage to add a choral blessing. A moving cast ensemble brings the opera to a close.
Foglia, who has authored a second mariachi opera (the 2019 El Milagro del Recuerdo), gives Cruzar the sheen of timeless wonder. Images of butterflies and a mother’s eyes recur in ways that are both lyrical and dramatically instrumental. If some heart-tugging sentimentality surfaces along the way, a listener would have to be steely not to feel the pull of it.
At Sunday’s opening, a technically plagued mariachi concert preceded the performance. Even if some microphone feedback hadn’t interfered, the concert was a miscalculation. One insistent up-tempo song after another set the wrong tone for the more delicate, entrancing atmosphere of the opera itself. Cruzar la Cara de la Luna stood on its own merits to conjure a distinctive universe.