In an interview I had with composer Gabriela Ortíz last week, she confided that it was The Threepenny Opera – that cynical reflection of Weimar-era Germany – that was at the forefront of her mind while composing her latest opera. Comparisons to that Jazz Age work would seem to invite the expectation that Ortíz’s opera would also be suffused with its bracing fusion of “high” and “low” art.

Enivia Mendoza and Adam Meza © Keith Ian Polakoff
Enivia Mendoza and Adam Meza
© Keith Ian Polakoff

Ortíz’s Camelia la Tejana – ¡Únicamente La Verdad! (Camelia the Texan – Only the Truth!), which was given its US première last Sunday by Long Beach Opera, for all its indebtedness to Brecht and Weill, exists in a world somewhat removed from that of Threepenny. True, like in Threepenny popular music – in this case the norteño and banda music of Mexico – leaves its deep imprint upon the work. But only an imprint. Weill in Threepenny managed to compose music where popular music went beyond merely flavoring the work. It was as much “serious” music as it was “popular”.

It’s doubtful anybody was humming strains of Camelia la Tejana after the curtain came down last Sunday. Nor would anyone confuse it for something that would be heard on KLAX-FM. It is a decidedly serious work, even somber at times. Ortíz’s musical language owes more to the musical modernists of the 20th century than it does to Ramón Ayala or Antonio Aguilar. Ortíz’s vocal lines consisted entirely of recitative – save for the opera’s poignant closing moments where Camelia sings a fragment of Contrabando y traición, a narcocorrido depicting Camelia’s life that was made famous by Los Tigres del Norte; somewhat at odds with the her more melodious and colorful treatment of the chamber-sized orchestra.

If the music doesn’t owe much to Weill’s example, the manner in which the opera’s plot unfolds is very much in the Brechtian mold. The libretto by Rubén Ortíz Torres, the composer’s brother, depicts Camelia’s life as so many pieces of a shattered image that others pick up and then examine the fragments as things unto themselves. It is here where the kinship with Weill and Brecht are felt strongest. Like Threepenny, Camelia also inhabits a world in danger; one that is sordid, obscene, and phony, where death is as much a part of life as the act of living itself. The result is a kind of dizzying, tabloidesque cubist collage; exploring the various degrees of truth and fiction, zeroing in on that grey realm where the two blur unrecognizably into the other.

At its best it was a compelling experience, though the thrust of its narrative was sometimes blunted by static moments of bald exposition. This was a problem especially in the opera’s third scene, where the composer of Contrabando y traición, the lead singer of Los Tigres del Norte, and musicologist Elijah Wald discuss and juxtapose their own perspectives on the meaning of the narcocorrido and Camelia’s life.

Long Beach Opera’s production of the work was excellent, the sets and perpetually flickering television screens aiding in the sense of unreality embedded in the work. The chorus and orchestra, led by Andreas Mitisek, played with crispness and precision.

The main singers were also superb. Soprano Enivia Mendoza brought to her Camelia the right proportion of toughness and vulnerability. Baritone Adam Meza, who was one of the highlights of a Pacific Opera Project production of La bohème in Highland Park last year, and tenor John Matthew Myers were also among the stand-outs.

It remains to be seen whether Camelia la Tejana – ¡Únicamente La Verdad! is a work for the ages but it certainly is one that speaks very directly to our age.

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