Joseph Waters’ Revised St. Francis Opera and SWARMIUS Ensemble Bring NWEAMO 2019 to Completion

Few operas by Guiseppe Verdi saw the light of day without significant revisions due to objections by censors of either church or state. In 1850, Verdi wanted to make an opera out of Victor Hugo’s successful play Le roi s’amuse (“The King Enjoys Himself”) about a lascivious French monarch, but censors made him change the plot to revolve around a court jester who served a lesser ignoble noble, the Duke of Mantua. And in 1851, Verdi refashioned the successful opera we know as Rigoletto, the court jester of the Mantuan Court.

Philip Gomez & Rodolfo Giron [photo courtesy of NWEAMO Festival 2019]

Composer Joseph Waters’ censors seem to be internal, however, because his opera-in-progress St. Francis de los Barrios that we experienced at the 2017 NWEAMO Festival at San Diego State University (SDSU) has now transformed into El Colibrí Mágico (“The Magic Hummingbird—A California Story”). A portion of this latest version of Waters’ opera was presented a semi-staged performance at Sunday’s (April 28) NWEAMO 2019 concert in SDSU’s Smith Recital Hall.

In El Colibrí Mágico, Francisco is still the central character, but instead of being a transgendered sex-worker in Tijuana’s red-light district, he is now a Latino San Diego teenager caught in that border city without the necessary papers to get back into the U.S. Fortunately, New York countertenor Rodolfo Giron still sings Francisco, his gleaming voice and fearless declamation winning us over in spite of the vagaries of the opera’s plot. (Another minor change: he was Rudy Alexander Giron in the 2017 festival.) Giron’s big, jazzy solo “Exuberant” sported a seductive vocal line that brought to mind a smokey 1950s nightclub and established Francisco’s euphoric, hopeful love of life.

Rodolfo Giron & Karen Garcia [photo courtesy of NWEAMO Festival 2019]

In a vision, Francisco meets the famous curandera Maria Sabina, sung magnificently by soprano Karen Garcia. Her poignant, soaring aria evoked the ingratiating vocal style of American composers Ned Rorem or Ricky Ian Gordon. In Tijuana, Francisco is befriended by Elias, sung confidently by Philip Gomez, and hectored from afar by father figure Donald, sung with baritonal vigor by Charles Coleman. Tenor John Michael provided aptly grating counterpoint as Francisco’s unsympathetic Anglo buddy.

St. Francis de los Barrios projected the gritty, confrontational character of a border town, whereas El Colibrí Mágico appeared to focus on the personal struggles of the protagonists. I hope we don’t have to wait too many more years to see how this evolving opera is going to turn out.

The SWARMIUS Ensemble, Waters’ reliable cadre of virtuoso instrumentalists, gave his opera excerpt the muscle it needs to keep an audience eager for more. On Friday’s program, SWARMIUS also offered several additional selections by Waters in addition to the opera excerpt. “Magic Hummingbird” may turn out to be the opera’s Overture, a pulsing collage of animated solo themes over a vibrant, jazzy bass line. Fluent alto saxophone Todd Rewoldt happily dominated the ensemble, with high-pitched keyboard antics supplied by Geoffrey Burleson and fleet vibraphone licks executed by Daniel Pate.

In “Train,” a song in which rock meets swing and neither triumphs, vocalist Nina Deering was suavely cradled by saxophones Ian Buss and Rewoldt. The singers dueled smartly in the fugal beginning of “Who Will Win?” although the center instrumental section offered hints of Mexican norteño influence. Waters added Korean virtuosa haegeum player and her colleague Nayeong Park on gayageum to his “Cherry Blossoms” with the expected effect these exotic colors from the two traditional Korean instruments would have on his piece.

Waters’ prolific catalogue shows his inspiration continues to flourish at full throttle with his deftly eclectic take on contemporary composition. But when it comes to his opera in progress—it needs a deadline.

This concert was presented by the New West Electronic Arts and Music Organization and the San Diego State University School of Music in the university’s Smith Recital Hall on Sunday, April 28, 2019.


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