The staid world of opera has let down its hair with Houston Grand Opera's world premiere of Daniel Catán's Salsipuedes, A Tale of Love, War, and Anchovies. There are ushers sporting tropical wear, salsa demonstrations in the grand foyer, palm tree shadows reflecting off lobby walls, a "cruise" photographer snapping pictures and even a trained monkey. If you arrive in a Hawaiian shirt or anything approximating island garb, you'll get a free chilled mojito. And we're informed before the opera begins that it's okay to "dance in the aisles."
That's a lot of hype for Catán's work to live up to. It doesn't. A very pleasant new work, Salsipuedes is a combination of half-soaring neo-Puccini melodies and Latin rhythms. But unlike Puccini's sublime musical theater, Catán's is strangely languid and without much passion -- its sporadic lyrical outbursts only leave us wanting more. The orchestral arrangement is so subtle that it takes a few scenes to realize that there are no violins, just cellos and basses. Other instruments include woodwinds, exotic drums like the djun-djun and even a rainstick. It's a great approximation of amarimba band, but it lessens the opera's romantic sweep and grandeur. Still, Salsipuedes, with its literate libretto by Eliseo Alberto and Francisco Hinojosa and its neon-colored, fantasy island set, is eminently listenable and refreshingly old-fashioned.
The story is set in 1943, on a fictional island much like Cuba, as a double wedding takes place. Ulises (Chad Shelton) and Chucho (Scott Hendricks), headliners of the band the Dolphins, are the small island's celebrities. Ulises is the realist; Chucho the clown. They're marrying two sisters, Lucero (Ana Maria Martinez) and Magali (Zheng Cao).
But all is not well on the island known as Salsipuedes. Interrupted on their honeymoon, the grooms are ordered by dictator General Garcia to play a farewell song aboard an old frigate that's off to fight against Germany in World War II. It's really a ruse -- Garcia is selling contraband to the Nazis (including Viagra-like anchovies for propagandist Joseph Goebbels). Garcia plans to turn a tremendous profit and cement his dictatorial control, with the help of Captain Magallanes (Oren Gradus). Naturally, the ship departs without warning, stranding the hapless grooms on board and their frantic brides on the pier.
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Armed with fathomless love, the women, though upset at their wayward husbands, traipse through the Caribbean until they discover them being pursued by two gold-diggers, Orquidea and La China (Laquita Mitchell and Heidi Stober). Using an age-old stage convention, the two sisters disguise themselves to prove the faithfulness of their husbands.
It's a romp of a story, enriched by the wordless presence of Houston Ballet's Lauren Anderson as the sultry embodiment of island fever, swirling across the stage during the carnival of Act I's dock scene; the chirpings of the two hussies; and the treachery and redemption of Captain Magallanes, who has a change of heart after initially helping Garcia. Following the discovery of his plot, General Garcia's Act III descent into madness is accompanied by the opera's only raucously "modern" music.
All the performers capture the comic flair of the opera, but as earthy brothers Chucho and Magali, baritone Hendricks and mezzo Cao are the most fun to watch. Their voices mesh better with Catán's rather bumpy lyricism, which comes alive in measures but not in pages. As the repentant Captain Magallanes, Gradus offers a silky bass that moves the opera to another level with his selfless act at the opera's end. It's the work's finest scene.
But musically, there's trouble from the downbeat. The audience isn't greeted with the shimmering, limpid, turquoise seas. Instead, the show's beginning is cloaked in murkiness, almost swimming in Wagner's Rhine. (The haunting music returns later during Captain Magallanes's "Ode to the Sea.") Starting a witty comedy with such gloom doesn't raise our spirits. It's a musical misstep from which the opera never fully recovers.
Catán's amazing 1996 Florencia en el Amazonas, another HGO world premiere, was an eye- and ear-opener. Using a hothouse romantic score to match the magic realism of its story, the opera proved to have a much longer shelf life than most contemporary ones.
Despite its snazzy staging by director James Robinson, lively cartoon sets by Allen Moyer (the island's flag is emblazoned with bananas) and whirling costumes by Constance Hoffman, Salsipuedes, sadly, never sets our legs dancing or our hearts racing. Conductor Guido Maria Guida seems more influenced by molasses than by rum, and though there are tantalizing sparks throughout, the opera never catches fire.
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