Though trite and a bit clichéd, the timeless adage, “History repeats itself”, is a succinct template for enveloping José “Pepe” Martínez’s colorful, powerful music inside the crystalline text by Leonard Foglia. After their phenomenal success of 2013’s Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), this second Mariachi opera, El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished), delves more deeply into the notions of class struggle, past and present, and how it relates to present times.

Octavio Moreno (Xihuitl) © Todd Rosenberg
Octavio Moreno (Xihuitl)
© Todd Rosenberg

Mr Foglia’s manuscript is the “Annie Proulx of Mexican literature”: pithy, pointed, engaging and teetering with absorbing pathos. Pasado is a snippet of generational feuding beginning in 1856 when Spanish criollos began their insidious official dominion over the Indians’ indigenous land.  The unequivocal tensions roiling beneath the surface amongst the indentured poor finally culminated in 1910 with the breakout of the Mexican Revolution.  Pasado begins on May 16, 1910 with a sighting of Halley’s Comet… a prophetic sign of imminent unrest and terrifying bloodshed.

Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán acts as a pseudo-Greek Theater chorus: narrating and commenting on the action while anchored on two of Elaine McCarthy’s simplified four-tiered risers. This pivotal, musical structure advances the plot with Mr Martínez’s backdrop of mellifluous melodies of justifiable expediency. As the curtain rises, we’re immediately taken by the physical separation of Mexico’s classes: the hacendados and the indíjenos. Octavio Moreno sings one of two roles as Xihuitl, a typified Mexican shaman, who quickly “sets the stage” and prophesizes about the tragedies and strife to come.

With a Mariachi opera that’s only 85 minutes in length, character development is swift. Here we find Mexico’s European influences channeled through French-born wife Isabel, performed by Cassandra Zoé Velasco. She unhesitatingly complains of life on the hacienda while her husband, Augustino (baritone Luis Ledesma), attempts placation. But the lynchpin to Pasado rests within Luis, son of the dueño who tries to absorb as much as possible of his homeland before returning to The United States and Europe for continuing education. Daniel Montenegro has a buttery, intoxicating tenor voice that sizes up to being extraordinary on many levels, be it an aria, duet or ensemble.

Cast of <i>El Pasada</i> © Todd Rosenberg
Cast of El Pasada
© Todd Rosenberg

Simultaneously, we’re introduced to the voices of Abigail Santos Villalobos as Amorita and her mother, Juana, performed by returning principal, Vanessa Alonzo. Abigail Villalobos’ timbre radiated an incredible softness and tenderness, seldom seen in the operatic theater. Particularly moving was “Amorita’s Dream”: she carried her sueño with such demure and delicate apportionment, never overstating her role. While Amorita’s the dreamer, Juana’s the pragmatist. Vanessa Alonzo’s notes exuded a wonderful degree of maternal kindness and empathy. Sound amplification, however, was a frequent invader of overall distraction.

As a man with a rightful “chip on his shoulder”, Ricardo Rivera channeled the appropriate amount of vehemence and hatred inside his role as Acalán. Freshly returned from Los Estados Unidos, he greets mother, Juana and sister, Amorita and sizes up the inequalities that are right in their backyard. This hatred of the wealthy is exacerbated when he discovers an amorous relationship developing between Amorita and Luis. Ricardo Rivera sings the most punctuated and lively, “Ya Basta” that ends in the shooting and deaths of Luis and Acalán… a déjà vu West Side Story. Powerful and pathetic.

Vanessa Alonzo (Juana) and Abigail Santos Villalobos (Isabel) © Todd Rosenberg
Vanessa Alonzo (Juana) and Abigail Santos Villalobos (Isabel)
© Todd Rosenberg

Pasado moves through the generations. Paul La Rosa plays modern day Congressman Enrique Moreno, singing with a stalwart, resolute baritone voice, accompanied by his son, Daniel (performed by debuting Sebastien de la Cruz.) While officially residing in Chicago, they return to Morelos in search of the grave of Enrique’s grandfather. Inside a cave they discover the burial site, but it also raises the question of family heritage. Inquisitive Daniel asks the question, “who are the mestizos?” Answer: “people with Indian mothers and Spanish fathers.”

It is here that El Pasado Nunca se Termina brings poignancy and relevancy and purpose: history helps people understand the past while allowing future generations the ability to shape their own destiny with hopeful peace and dignity. Leonard Foglia’s writing alongside José “Pepe” Martínez’s music shapes a dramatic story that can transcend into a universal focus.

This specific performance was a bit befuddling due to malfunctioning supertitles. Scott Marr’s costumes, while establishing a pleasing and appropriate pallet, had too much of a monochromatic garb for men on the hacienda that confused who was on whose side.  Christopher Maravich’s lighting added beautiful touches to the production, especially with mottled luminance to depict the caves of South Central Mexico. 

***11