A pregnant Mexican woman with a small son is determined to reunite her family and join her husband in America. She wants her new child to be born an American, with both parents present. So she hires a smuggler to take her and the boy north. But the arduous journey weakens her. She dies en route in the desert.
This could be a wrenching personal story ripped from today’s news to illustrate the struggles of undocumented immigrants who feel strong bonds to their homeland but want to get ahead in America.
It’s actually a central plotline of what has been called the first mariachi opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” (“To Cross the Face of the Moon”), with music by José (Pepe) Martínez (who died in 2016) and lyrics by Martínez and the playwright Leonard Foglia, who also wrote the book. In its New York premiere, the reconstituted New York City Opera is presenting the work, which opened on Thursday in the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
“Cruzar” was commissioned and introduced by the Houston Grand Opera in 2010. At the time, long-simmering debates over immigration gave the piece enormous resonance. But few involved in the current New York run could have imagined the extent to which these issues would be roiling American politics and society at this very moment.
The subject is explored with affecting sensitivity in this rich, honest opera. Or call it a chamber opera, or a music-theater piece. It hardly matters. There are long stretches of spoken dialogue in Spanish and English. The 13 musicians of the splendid Mariachi Los Camperos ensemble (with six violins, three trumpets, guitars, a vihuela and harp) perform from the back of the stage and sometimes join in the singing. Directed by Mr. Foglia, the simple, fluid staging, with just a few rolled-on props, comes from Houston.
The story opens in present-day New York. A Mexican immigrant, Laurentino (played here by Octavio Moreno, a fine baritone with soft-spoken charisma) is ill and dying. At times he doesn’t recognize his American-born son, Mark (Efraín Solís, a mellow baritone), and Mark’s daughter Diana (Maria Valdes, a sweet soprano), an aspiring writer.
On his deathbed, Laurentino lets slip that before he married Mark’s mother, he had a Mexican wife, Renata (Cecilia Duarte, a creamy-voiced mezzo-soprano), and that they had a son, Rafael, who is presumably still living in Mexico.
In the context of this story, that Laurentino in his hazy mental state confuses Mark with Rafael has uncommon poignancy. He can’t bear to think of his earlier life or even return to his homeland. Yet, he’s still claimed by it. Past and present mingle in his mind.
The opera, which runs 75 minutes without a break, becomes a series of beautifully juxtaposed scenes that shift from New York today to Mexico 50 years earlier, when we see Laurentino and Renata marry. At the center is the crucial scene when Renata attempts to reach America with little Rafael, only to die in the desert, long known metaphorically as the “face of the moon.”
The mariachi musical idiom is run through with supple, animated rhythmic riffs. The bright trumpets lend flair. But the music is carried by lyrical, melodic stretches in the violins. There is restraint and modesty in the Martínez’s songs and ensemble numbers. During the jubilant scene when Laurentino and Renata marry, the music is festive yet tinged with darkness, conveying, I felt, that life is full of unknowns. Most operas would milk the final scene when Laurentino’s first son, Rafael, appears at the old man’s deathbed and reconciles. This one plays it with melancholic understatement.
The impressive eight-person cast includes Vanessa Alonzo as Lupita, Renata’s friend; Miguel De Aranda as Chucho, Lupita’s husband, who convinces Laurentino to come seek their futures in America; Daniel Montenegro as the adult Rafael; and Miguel Nuñez as Victor, the well-meaning guide hired by Renata to take her to America. David Hanlon is the music director.
Moment after moment, this piece captured the dilemma of immigration in sadly human ways. When Laurentino tells his young wife that he must go to America for the future of the family, she bluntly replies, “I didn’t marry you to get money in the mail.”