Gloomy and anguished, the Stabat Mater is not the first work you would associate with the thriving, jiving city of Guanajuato in hill-crested Central Mexico. The annual Festival Internacional Cervantino renders winding streets and opulent theatres a Mecca for revellers and culture vultures of all guises, with this year's three-week programme featuring 700 events from experimental dance to cool jazz to the theatre of the Spanish Golden Age. Latin America's largest cultural festival, situated in a city that grew fat on the fruit of 18th-century gold mines, is no mere demonstration of Mexico's ability to put on an international programme of impeccable taste, but also a celebration this country's own plentiful reservoir of cultural resources. A performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater, for which young musicians from the Guanajuato state joined others hailing from Mexico City, was a case in point.

Jesus Almanza Castillo © Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino
Jesus Almanza Castillo
© Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino

Festival director Jorge Volpi – a leading intellectual in Mexico and one of its most celebrated novelists – used his opening press conference to reflect, amongst other things, on widespread corruption at the heart of Mexico's government. That he is able to do so with impunity when FIC is so heavily reliant on government funding reflects its central importance to the nation's cultural well-being. A range of FIC initiatives aim to nurture home-grown cultural traditions, including the “Proyecto Ruelas”, a series of theatre productions featuring members of marginalised communities, and “OM21”,  which involves a new opera commission from Mexican artists each year.

Youth music is another facet of this process of cultural procreation, for which tonight's event served as a showcase. The unprogrammed concert opener of Messiaen's convulsive Les offrandes oubliées may have been inappropriate for the wallowing acoustic of the Templo de la Compañía – a cavernous hulk of a church topped with gaping neoclassical dome – but it fittingly demonstrated this orchestra's aptitude for balanced, coordinated playing. Regardless, the lofty musicianship displayed in what followed came as no less of a welcome surprise. Rossini's Stabat Mater foreshadows Verdi's Requiem in its appropriation of variegated operatic colour, and the deft Orquesta Sinfónica Juvenil Silvestre Revueltas flitted nimbly between elegantly conveyed extremes. Director Jesus Almanza Castillo favoured sensitivity and supple sway over hell-for-leather melodrama in the opening movement, painting a smouldering backdrop in nutty slides from worming cellos and empyrean chords from winds.

Gabriela Herrera and Amelia Serra © Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino
Gabriela Herrera and Amelia Serra
© Cortesísia Festival Internacional Cervantino

Fine playing met its match with the local Coro Juvenil del Conservatorio de Música de Celaya, here lit below dramatic stage lighting like a painting by Velázquez, whose growling depiction of Mary weeping at the cross was evoked in burnished golds and ashen surfaces. Of the soloists, the most compelling proved the younger contingent. Veteran Mexican mezzo-diva Amelia Sierra possessed inflated melodrama to match her glaring diamonds and velvet dress, which was striking in the nervously scampering Fac, ut portem Christi mortem, but elsewhere destabilised the ensemble, the singer's bulging top notes cleaving open the first quartet and producing unsteadiness in the duet Qui est homo. Sluggishness from soprano Gabriela Herrera did not help matters here, though her subsequent Inflammatus et accensus provided warming richness in streaming high notes.

Volpi is justified in lauding the current batch of up-and-coming Mexican singers. The two young male soloists were particular standouts here. Wayward tuning from 30-year-old baritone José Luis Reynoso may have been doubly conspicuous in the unaccompanied Eja, Mater when the solemn choral interjections that lend Russian Orthodox flavour were delivered with such bell-like clarity, but his stentorian voice was ideal for Pro peccatis suae gentis, which was void of light and shade but brimmed with muscular swagger. Tenor Edgar Villalva looked every bit the successor to ageing Mexican stars, conveying Italianate pomp in Cujus animan gementem with snappy dotted rhythms and intelligent crafting of the text. Passages that rose above the passaggio were an especial treat, focussing to a point and never spreading.

Villalva hit the aria's final top D clean through the middle − a thrilling moment, matched only by the fire-and-brimstone rendering of Mozartian counterpart in the finale. Characteristic crafting of detail made high-precision textures glisten even in this difficult acoustic. No tears required. On the basis of this performance, Mexican youth music is in fine shape.