While many a music and theatrical company slipped into hiatus or slumber mode during the pandemic, Opera Santa Barbara should be acknowledged for pursuing resourceful examples of plan-B thinking. Under the directorship of Kostis Protopapas, the company presented drive-in operas, a compacted, Wagner-on-the-cheap theater presentation, and promoted offerings by local musicians — all socially distanced, natch. It seems fitting that the company opened its official new season in front of a live audience with the Mariachi Opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To cross the face of the moon), while also reinvigorating the city’s premier concert house of the Granada Theater, itself bedecked in Spanish decor and architectural features.
The opera, with music by José “Pepe” Martínez (founding director of the acclaimed Mariachi Vargas de Tecatlán) and lyrics/book by Martínez and Leonard Foglia, premiered in Houston in 2010 touted as “the first mariachi opera,” and now has had a strong west coast premiere via OSB’s sharply and passionately rendered production, graced with a homecoming resonance on several levels.
Mariachi, as a genre, isn’t as exotic in this locale as it might be elsewhere: Santa Barbara hosts the respected annual Mariachi Festival and its streets are abuzz with roving Mariachis during the August Fiesta “Old Spanish Days” celebration. To boot, the virtuosic ensemble Mariachi Los Camperos — this opera’s orchestra of choice, crisply conducted here by David Hanlon — has performed in Santa Barbara on a regular basis.
Martínez and Foglia’s moving, socially relevant, and yes, shamelessly sentimental tale involves separation anxiety and immigration angst, untimely death, slow roasting nostalgia, and lingering family ties. Threaded through the humanistic narrative is the theme of migrating monarch butterflies — delicate but dogged, like our protagonists — and the OSB production comes replete with a cascade of orange monarch replicas fluttering from the rafters at opera’s end.
Chronology is an elastic property in this saga, smoothly conveyed in the flowing production design of stage director Octavio Cardenas, scenic designer Adam Crinson, lighting designer Brandon Baruch, and costumer Stacie Logue, as we trek across decades, and between both sides of the Mexican/American border. Wistful, ailing family patriarch Laurentino (an assured, empathetic Bernardo Bermudez), is consoled by his son Mark and his daughter Diana (Efrain Solis and Raphaella Medina, in fine form), as the aging father pines for his lost son Rafael (Daniel Montenegro) and first love/wife Renata (Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez). Back home in Mexico, wives left behind as husbands earn their keep in the north, bemoan the dire fate: “A house without a man is not a house.”
Between these general dramatic dynamics lies a tale, with insightful and story-propelling songs, of the tragic aspects of the immigrant experience on families torn asunder. And yet Martínez and Foglia manage to avoid extreme pathos or gritty realities, instead fashioning an opera with the friendly detachment of Mexican soap-operatics and melodrama — fortified by melodies and imagery. Melodramatic, by design and by nature, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna deftly juggles sophistication and sentiment even as it summons up social commentary and concern beneath its affable, tuneful surfaces. Eleven years after its world premiere, and way out west, the opera’s themes ring truer than ever, while touching the heart.
Following the 75-minute opera, Mariachi Los Comperos served up a half-hour concert from their own standard songbook, as a kind of elemental demonstration of the musical bedrock out of which the opera was built, as well as a show of the taut force of this superlative group. The concert ended, aptly, with “¡Viva Mexico, Viva America!” echoing the hope-imbued, border-crossing sentiment of the opera itself.