Minnesota Opera’s ‘Cruzar La Cara De La Luna’ speaks to the Mexican immigration experience

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The Ordway Music Theater gets a dose of mariachi music for Minnesota Opera’s production of “Cruzar La Cara De La Luna” (To Cross the Face of the Moon). Infusing the folk-derived Mexican musical genre into an opera format, the work speaks to the Mexican immigration experience as well as the enduring legacies of families who have made the United States their home over multiple generations.

Relaying the journey of a family split apart by two countries and tragic fate, the piece is colored — metaphorically and in its scenic and costume design by Arnulfo Maldonado — with the hues of a monarch butterfly. The monarch serves as a key image in the opening song, “En Frágiles Alas,” (On Fragile Wings) first sung softly by Mark performed by Efraín Solís at the bed of his ailing father, as he plays the guitar. The song is repeated throughout the story, evoking the migratory cycles of the monarch butterfly and their tremendous journeys between Mexico and the United States across generations.

The Houston Grand Opera commissioned acclaimed mariachi composer José “Pepe” Martinez and librettist Leonard Foglia to create the first of its kind opera back in 2010. Minnesota Opera’s production — a co-production with the Austin Opera — boasts several of the original cast members, including Octavio Moreno, who plays Laurentino, the patriarch of the family saga, and Cecilia Duarte, who portrays Laurentino’s first love, Renata. Both are trained opera singers born in Mexico, while another original cast member, Vanessa Alonzo, is a well-known mariachi singer. Alonzo sings the role of Renata’s friend Lupita with her powerful belting voice.

In the original Houston Grand Opera production, composer Martínez’s mariachi ensemble, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, performed with the singers in an on-stage accompaniment. For Minnesota Opera’s production, conductor David Hanlon created a new orchestral arrangement for the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, employing instruments not typically used in mariachi like woodwinds and percussion. The full sound adds to the emotional feeling of the piece, bringing weight to the dramatic moments and a lively flourish to celebratory scenes.

Three on-stage musicians play the guitarrón (a fat bass guitar), guitarra, and the high-pitched vihuela. Dressed in traditional mariachi outfits, the on-stage mariachi players often hover above the main action of the story, playing their instruments on the balcony as they act as witnesses to what transpires between the characters, backlit by an enormous moon.

Unlike typical mariachi bands, the on-stage mariachi players don’t sing, leaving that up to the singers in the cast. That differs from previous productions of the opera that featured the Mariachi Vargas ensemble, which had singers as part of the group.

In stage director David Radamés Toro’s staging for the Minnesota Opera, the three on-stage musicians remain fairly detached from the chorus and the story’s characters. For much of the opera, they watch from a distance. Their presence feels ominous and under-utilized.

Where Radamés Toro’s direction does excel is in the relationships developed between the characters, both in 2010 and 50 years earlier on Laurentino and Renata’s wedding day. Their story and that of their children encompasses the brutal realities of immigration and how it impacts the children and grandchildren later on. The production successfully illustrates the complexity of the different family dynamics as it offers a message of hope, forgiveness and redemption.

Minnesota Opera’s ‘Cruzar La Cara De La Luna’

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9 and Saturday, Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12
Where: The Ordway, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $25-$228
Capsule: Minnesota Opera gets a mariachi treatment.

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