San Diego Opera’s Christmas Miracle: ‘El Milagro del Recuerdo’

Performing arts organizations have traditionally chosen offerings for the Christmas season that are thematically aligned. Dance companies unfailingly present Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet, and choral groups can be counted on to craft some version of Handel’s oratorio Messiah. And is there a theater company that has failed to offer some staged version of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol during this season?

The pastorela tableau; Gaudalupe Paz as the angel [photo (c.) Karli Cadel]

Opera companies, however, face a challenge in this season. Menotti’s charming Amahl and the Night Visitors, originally written for television in 1952, is too short for an evening of opera, and finding something to pair with it is difficult. The recent Spanish-language mariachi opera El Milagro del Recuerdo by composer Javier Martínez and librettist Leonard Foglia could become a regular Christmas production for the opera world.

Friday at Civic Theatre, San Diego Opera opened a spectacular production of El Milagro del Recuerdo, a co-production with Arizona Opera and Houston Grand Opera, the company that commissioned and premiered this mariachi opera in 2019. Colorfully set in Michoacán, Mexico, in 1962, Foglia has chosen a Christmas Eve rehearsal of the community’s annual pastorela as the backdrop to struggles Mexican families faced when fathers would leave to participate in the United States’ bracero program.

A Spanish Nativity pageant that recounts the Biblical account of the birth of Jesus as told by the shepherds—hence the name pastorela–appeared in colonial Mexico as early at the 16th century, and it became firmly rooted in the Mexican celebration of Christmas. El Milagro opens with the village priest, Padre Matias, coaching the children participating in the pastorela and extolling the wonder of this sacred event. The bright tenor of Felipe Prado, recently seen in the company’s premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s El último sueño de Frida y Diego, brought winning fervor to his task.

Guadalupe Paz [photo (c.) Karli Cadel]

Soon we meet the two mothers: Renata, sung by mezzo-soprano Sishel Claverie, and Lupita, sung by soprano Vanessa Alonzo, who avidly communicate their concern of raising

Sishel Claverie & Claudia Chapa [photo (c.) Karli Cadel]

young children alone while their husbands, Chucho and Laurentino, sung by tenor Bernardo Bermudez and bass-baritone Federico de Michelis, patiently explain the financial benefits of earning good wages in the U.S.A.

As counterpoint to these conflicted couples, mezzo-soprano Claudia Chapa as the village elder Josefina offers an inspiring, mellow aria of sage counsel to the distraught Renata. In the opera’s most beautifully constructed arioso, a paean that extolls the opera title’s theme of remembrance, Guadalupe Paz again displayed the transporting allure of her shimmering mezzo-soprano that San Diego Opera audience members appreciated in her impressive account of Frida Kahlo in Frank‘s La último sueño de Frida y Diego. Paz also appeared as the triumphant angel in the opera’s concluding tableau of the pastorela.

Baritone Héctor Vásquez provided amusing and vocally confident comic relief as the Devil in the pastorela rehearsal. The three accomplished mariachi guitarists, Victor Viberos, Mario Cesar Eguia, and William Carlton Galvez, played and sang magnificently onstage throughout the opera; their rich chords and resonant voices formed a mini-chorus that both sustained and propelled the dramatic action.

Neil Patel’s simple stage design of large arches that quickly reconfigured when a scene changed kept the pace of Leonard Foglia’s production moving confidently. Gregory Gale’s arresting costumes, especially for the characters of the pastorela, proved unusually vibrant and eye-catching. In the pit, James Lowe presided with proper authority over the warm strings and brilliant trumpets, an ensemble smaller than a typical opera orchestra, but clearly  sufficient to the demands of Martínez’s score.

Bernardo Bermudez & Federico de Michelis [photo (c.) Karli Cadel]

The supertitles in simultaneous Spanish and English arrived in reliable correlation to onstage dialogue and singing.

The mariachi opera’s final curtain did not conclude the evening’s festivities. Outside in the Civic Theatre plaza, Jeff Nevin’s accomplished 15-member mariachi ensemble from Southwestern College gave an hour-long concert of the most beloved mariachi songs to a cheering audience who gladly stood to enjoy their music in the afterglow of the mariachi opera. As their program unfolded, members of the El Milagro cast came forward and sang vivid solos with the ensemble, much to the delight of the listeners.

This opera was presented by San Diego Opera in the San Diego Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego on Friday, December 1, 2023. A Sunday matinee performance on December 3 will be presented in the same venue.

Leave a Comment