Quick, which semiclassical cantata includes the immortal line, “But the workers received from their employers an insurance that covered major medical expenses”? The answer is Los Braceros, a cantata by Enrico Chapela Barba for mariachi and orchestra suffused with great music but in desperate need of a better libretto and some rudimentary staging. The Santa Rosa Symphony premiered the work over the weekend (I heard the second performance on Sunday, June 12).
The cantata employs four vocal soloists and Mariachi Champaña Nevin, a full band with trumpets, violins, various types of guitars, and more than a dozen microphones that make the mariachi audible above the orchestra. The band also doubles as a chorus on occasion. The vocal soloists and the band stretch almost all the way across the stage in front of the orchestra, with the soloists on stage right and the band on stage left.
The soloists ranged from the well-known opera singers Rafael Jorge Negrete (baritone) and Mónica Ábrego (soprano) to the mariachi soloists Perry Chacón Jr. (tenor) and Giselle Vallejo (contralto). Unfortunately, they all wore hidden body mikes, transforming their strong natural voices into something more befitting a Broadway show. The shortcomings of this technology were exposed right at the beginning, when one of the soloists’ body mikes failed to turn on. The volume and quality of the individual mikes was also a problem, with Vallejo’s much louder and more artificial sounding than the others’.
Setting all that aside, the music was consistently good. Chapela Barba has a knack for weaving the mariachi players into the orchestral parts. The most prominent mariachi sound was the strumming guitars, which added considerably to the string texture.
The story of the cantata, which takes place at the end of the Bracero program in 1964, is told in nine scenes, beginning with the tenor Pedro wooing the contralto Consuela, much to the consternation of her parents, the baritone Jorge and the soprano Dolores. The audience had to imagine the scene because not a hint of staging was to be found. Jorge is concerned that Pedro wants to become a bracero, so Jorge launches into an aria that disparages the program, despite its major medical insurance.
The music is a mixture of traditional mariachi melodies with often thrilling modern orchestrations. The climactic scene occurs after Pedro migrates to California and ends up in (where else?) Santa Rosa. Accompanied by strings that sound like a Bernard Herrmann movie score, Pedro sings passionately about how his employer “signed the application to start the procedure to gain my permanent residency.” Somehow it doesn’t trip off the tongue, not even in Spanish.
Fortunately, the rest of the concert was libretto-free. The opener was Arturo Márquez’s oft-played Danzón No. 2, and the second half was occupied by Respighi’s Fountains and Pines of Rome. Made famous by Gustavo Dudamel’s spirited renditions, the Danzón becomes somewhat threadbare after repeated hearings. The Symphony’s performance was technically adept, with a sharply etched trumpet solo, but it lacked Dudamel’s extra swing. In contrast, the Respighi symphonic poems were as good as one could hope.
The Fountains of Rome began with lovely shimmering strings and a talented woodwind ensemble trading off short solos. Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong set a graceful tempo that kept the music flowing seamlessly from the fountain of Valle Giulia to its brethren at Triton, Trevi, and the Villa Medici.
An organ loomed large at the rear of the stage, and all its stops seemed to be pulled out by the time the other instruments reached the Trevi fountain. The bass pedals shook the rafters as the other stage occupants contributed to the sound. It was wonderful to hear the full orchestra in all its resplendent glory, followed by haunting bells and a long pause at the end.
The Pines of Rome is well deserving of its status as an orchestral staple. This performance began at the Villa Borghese with superb playing from the French horns and moved to the Catacombs, where a dramatic offstage trumpet solo led the way through the depths. At the Janiculum, the piano, clarinet, and cello solos evolved into a dense orchestration that sounded almost like Olivier Messiaen, capped by a star turn from a recorded nightingale.
No sooner had the nightingale finished than the troops began marching up the Via Appia. The timpani was relentless as the orchestral texture gradually built in size and volume. Lecce-Chong remained calm, keeping a steady beat as the orchestra continued to swell, culminating in a tremendous crash with the organ playing full out. It was a convincing performance.