Whenever death meets a new dawning, it divines a beautiful tragedy. Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), a mariachi opera that Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco commissioned and premiered in 2010 by José “Pepe” Martínez and Leonard Foglia, turns festively on this adage, at once uplifting and heartbreaking.
Cruzar la Cara de la Luna might be the most beloved of HGO’s commissions from the last two decades and has enjoyed great success touring far beyond Houston. The story revolves around a simple butterfly metaphor—the death of a caterpillar means the birth of a butterfly, and that butterfly will migrate to a new land and begin the cycle all over again. Spanning three generations and multiple timelines in Mexico and Houston, the 75-minute operetta is about one family’s journey across borders to find one another and to make a home together. In the lobby before the performance began, I overheard more than two people say the end of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna always makes them cry.
But after a poignant baritone and guitar solo, the front curtain drops to reveal Mariachi los Camperos, the Los-Angeles-based mariachi ensemble strumming against a red backdrop and falling gold butterflies with sombreros propped up on their music stands, and everything sounds far from melancholy through to the final bow. Though each aria, like “Ten Times More of a Man,” abides by easy melodies (a rare but welcomed sing-able soundtrack in today’s new opera realm), the complexity of merriment sounding out in the face of disaster is stunning. The moment Lupita laments that Renata’s pregnant body was left in the desert to rot—an aria complemented by chirrups of violins, harp, trumpets, and guitars—the sound is almost cheerful.
With Mariachi los Camperos joyfully holding the foundation, a forceful cast of singers propel the story forward. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte created the role of Renata and clearly continues to hold court. She has a robust voice suited to her passionate character, and her tone exudes the fierce determinedness to create a home that makes this operetta so empathetic. As Laurentino, baritone Octavio Moreno warmed the Resilience Theater with an amber timbre and seamless technical agility.
While baritone Efraín Solís (who, as Mark, sang that poignant opening solo) and soprano Alexandra Smither (as his daughter Diana) were not the most dynamic performers here, their voices were a rich complement in the ensemble numbers, particularly the closing quartet. As Rafael, the character most psychologically damaged by the border separating Mexico from the United States, tenor Daniel Montenegro demonstrated an uncompromising tone and precise vibrato that left me wanting to hear more. As Lupita and Chucho, mariachi singers Vanessa Alonzo and Miguel de Aranda kept everything vibrant.
The production team, too, favors a kind of candid easiness in the one-act work. Costume designer Cesar Galindo adheres to a palette of light blue, grey, and white; lighting designer Brian Nason (realized in this performance by Gary C. Echelmeyer) casts bright colors on the curved back wall but doesn’t pull any extravaganzas; choreographer Keturah Stickann plots sensible courses for each character across the stage. Nothing seems forced.
The uncomplicated sensibilities let the sentiment driving this operetta shine. Like the story it tells, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna comes full circle, opening and closing with the same parable of a butterfly, but it offers one unmoving resolution: “Only forgiveness will give us peace,” one character sings. Tender yet straightforward, there’s no need to say anything more.
Thru May 20. Tickets from $15. Resilience Theater at the George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. 713-228-6737. More info and tickets at houstongrandopera.org.