Still Waiting for HGO's Mariachi Opera

The Setup: In present-day Houston, addled old Laurentino (Octavio Moreno) surprises his American-born son Mark (Brian Shircliffe) by calling out the name of his Mexican-born son Rafael (David Guzman). Granddaughter Diana (Brittany Wheeler) wants to find mysterious Rafael and reunite him with Dad before Laurentino dies. We learn that after Laurentino went off to America to make his living, wife Renata (Cecilia Duarte) followed but died during the journey. Adult Rafael, raised in Mexico, hates his father for the abandonment, but by story's end, the family is reunited after way too many butterfly migration metaphors.

The Execution: Houston Grand Opera labels To Cross the Face of the Moon, Jose Pepe Martinez and Leonard Foglia's pleasant song cycle, as the "world's first mariachi opera." You can also call my Aunt Sally "Elizabeth Taylor," but that won't make her so. What we have here is a tuneful gimmick, a variety of lovely mariachi songs loosely stitched onto a sketchy plot.

Played with spirit by one of the world's renowned ensembles, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, and sung by an appealing cast, the songs are individually attractive and lilting, but they have the same orchestration throughout and their musical shapes blend together. The strings embroider the melody, the horns jazz it up, the guitars add rhythm, the harp gives spice and filigree. The songs are danceable, and even the sad ones have a bounce and rhythm that belie the drama. This is opera, we're told. Where are the big emotions, the grand passions? Although each one's a charmer, the tunes don't have the heft to cover such emotional territory as losing one's identity and the search for homeland, to say nothing about the heated border-fence debate this work completely ignores. This one-night world-premiere original -- HGO's 41st, an impressive number for any company -- is the concert version, with a fully staged production to arrive in December at Talento Bilingüe de Houston with UTPA Mariachi.

The Verdict: The question haunts: How will the drama be filled out where there's now vast empty space? Characters have nothing to do, and the music, while lively, supplies no action. There's no punch to the dialogue scenes, and it's only the infectious music and the polished singing that keep our interest. We're still waiting for the opera.

The full-staged production will run December 3-5. TBH Center, 333 S. Jensen Rd. 713-222-1213.

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