The pastorela from HGO's El Milagro del Recuerdo.

If you have time for only one show this holiday season, make it Houston Grand Opera’s newest world premiere: El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering), a mariachi opera that explores what it means to be a family when life threatens to pull us apart.

With a libretto by Leonard Foglia and music by Javier Martínez, El Milagro is a prequel to Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), an earlier mariachi opera by Foglia and José Martínez (Javier’s father) which was premiered by HGO in 2010. Those who haven’t seen its predecessor will be moved all the same: I missed Cruzar, but El Milagro brought me to tears twice.

Set in 1962 in Michoacán, Mexico, the opera centers on two families facing their first Christmas apart: The mothers are home alone with the children while the fathers work in the United States as braceros.

The story begins on Christmas eve, as the priest guides the close-knit community in preparations for the pastorela, a traditional Mexican nativity play. Everyone has a role: The little boys are shepherds, sisters and mothers play angels, an elderly man dressed as a cartoonish Satan tempts the shepherds and steals one of their tamales.  Just as it's time for the angel Michael to appear to challenge Satan, the priest realizes they have no one to play the part this year. He enlists Renata, already dressed as a devil, for the part and the rehearsal breaks for her to change costumes. It is in this moment that Renata, played masterfully by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte, laments to her friend Lupita (Vanessa Alonzo), “We have to be mothers and fathers, angels and devils, shepherds and animals—all I want is to be a family.” She cuts to the heart of one of the opera’s major conflicts: The absence of their husbands has left these women with heavy burdens and heavier hearts.

To everyone’s surprise, the husbands, Laurentino (Daniel Noyala) and Chucho (Miguel de Aranda), soon interrupt the rehearsal, having arranged to return home for two days. Their arrival injects renewed joy into the Christmas festivities but also heightened tension.

One of the most interesting elements of the opera is how differently the two families experience their reunion. Chucho’s and Lupita’s reunion is lighter, more unfailingly celebratory. Chucho has brought Lupito the latest American fashion, which she flaunts proudly, and he dons a golden jacket to impersonate Elvis. For Renata and Laurentino, their time together is fraught with conflict. Laurentino’s absence has weighed heavily on Renata, robbing her of the sense that they are a family at all. In one heart-wrenching scene, she begins to list important moments in their son’s life, asking Laurentino if he remembers them. After the first few milestones, he can no longer recall them.

“Because you weren’t there,” she bitterly reminds him. In moments like these, El Milagro raises many important questions: What is cost of the cultural expectations for men and women? When is it right to leave home? What does it mean to be a family?

These emotional moments are intensified by Martinez’s tender score, which succeeds equally well in the opera’s many lighter moments. Only the third mariachi opera ever written, El Milagro’s lively and festive music is one of its main attractions. San Antonio’s Trio Chapultepec featuring guitar, guitarrón, and vihuela performs onstage throughout and is joined by trumpets and strings in a small orchestra conducted by David Hanlon. The vocal performances of the cast are uniformly excellent and well-suited to the mariachi style. The music is accessible and memorable, allowing Martinez to revive key themes in the opera’s final scene to powerful dramatic effect.

The production features glorious set design by Neil Patel and costumes by Gregory Gale that capture the grandeur of the pastorela. One of the most striking scenes is a flashback of a sky full of butterflies, portrayed through sparkling confetti and Ken Billington’s masterful light design.

El Milagro del Recuerdo is a stunning new opera that will to appeal a wider audience than any typical HGO production. Lasting a brief one hour and fifteen minutes, this production packs an emotional punch that lands with empathy and authenticity. It is not to be missed.

Runs thru Dec. 20 at the Wortham Theatre Center. Tickets start at $30. Go to houstongrandopera.org for more information.  

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