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Lyric Opera’s ‘Cruzar’ needs a bit more musical zest

4/7/13 3:43:29 PM 
Lyric Unlimited 
Cruzar LCarDe LLuna

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

4/7/13 3:43:29 PM Lyric Unlimited Cruzar La Cara De La Luna Performance © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

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‘Cruzar la Cara
de la Luna’


♦ April 19-20, Benito Juarez Community Academy, sold out

♦ 7:30 p.m. April 21, Genesee Theatre, Waukegan; tickets, $5-$18; or (800) 982-2787

Updated: April 8, 2013 6:47PM

Festive was the mood and festive was the sold-out crowd Sunday at the Civic Opera House as Lyric Opera of Chicago presented the Midwest premiere of “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” billed as the first “mariachi opera.”

Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director and previously head of Houston Grand Opera, commission­ed this 75-minute work as a means of connecting the excitement of Mexican mariachi with the theatrical staging and storytelling of opera. He hoped, too, to bring together the audiences for each genre. After the work’s 2010 debut in Houston, in a concert form, one of Freud’s first announcements as Lyric’s general director-designate was his plan to bring “Cruzar” here.

Lyric has done its outreach, selling out not only the house Sunday but also three dates at Benito Juarez Community Academy. (Some tickets remain for the April 21 show in Waukegan.) The excitement in the largely Latino audience was palpable, for the national folkloric music of Mexico and for the story of a Mexican family divided by emigration, economic necessities, future aspirations and personal tragedy. In my seating section alone, two different friends spoke to me afterward: “This was my brother’s story,” said one. “This is my story,” said the other.

Beginning in 1942, the U.S. government’s Bracero Program brought hundreds of thousands of contract manual laborers north from Mexico. Economic opportunity meant new possibilities for the workers’ families but also caused a drain of men from Mexican towns and villages; it also meant long separations of families that often became permanent due to ever-changing immigration laws.

Freud tapped Broadway and opera director Leonard Foglia to draft a story, and Foglia encouraged Freud to hire Jose “Pepe” Martinez, the director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan, the Cadillac of the ranchera genre, to write and perform the music. Martinez and Foglia created the lyrics together.

At its Houston debut, there was debate over whether “To Cross the Face of the Moon” is “really an opera.” My concern was much more over whether this is really mariachi. An effective opening scene of the Chicago-born son of a dying bracero veteran singing a folk-like song about the migrations of butterflies — which can be seen to “cross the face of the moon” in their flights — moves from his quiet solo with his acoustic guitar accompaniment to an explosive son as a curtain rises to reveal the 13 charro-costumed members of Mariachi Vargas.

The energy of Martinez and his fellow musicians was tremendous. But the music soon gave way to ballad-style boleros, and many of these numbers sounded like the soupy “mariachi lite” that Freud explicitly said he wanted the work to avoid.

All the songs, though, were beautifully performed by the Vargas group and the actor-singers, most veterans of the work’s past performances in Houston, Paris and San Diego. (Mariachi Aztlan from the University of Texas Pan-American will perform in the April 19-21 dates.) The rich-voiced women — Cecilia Duarte as Renata, the wife whose existence became a secret after her tragic death, and Vanessa Cerda-Alonzo as her friend Lupita — were particular standouts with Cerda-Alonzo capturing the joy and pain of being a bracero wife in song and dance. Octavio Moreno as Laurentino, the Michoacan migrant, and unintentional immigrant, captured the audience’s heart in song and story. Baritone Mark Shircliffe and tenor David Guzman were gentle and ardent, respectively, as Laurentino’s American- and Mexican-born adult sons, who’ve never known of even the existence of the other.

Foglia directed and designed the staging of his sometimes clunky bilingual story (with excellent reverse bilingual supertitles), and Cesar Galindo made the era- and region-evocative costumes.

Does “Cruzar” have a life beyond these special presentations? Perhaps in schools. Does it really bring together two musical traditions? Probably not. But what a connection with Chicago’s large Latino population, too often ignored by major musical institutions! And if the work’s tempos were pumped up, “Cruzar” is an intriguing idea of combination whose time might still come.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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