LONG BEACH, CA
Long Beach Opera
Combine the films of Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah, and you may — may — get a body count higher than the one in Camelia La Tejana: Only the Truth, Gabriela Ortiz’s brilliant, lurid, lapel-grabbing opera, with a libretto by her brother Rubén Ortiz Torres. The work was presented in its U.S. professional debut (heard Mar. 30) by Long Beach Opera as part of its “Borderline” season.
The multimedia work was inspired by Los Tigres del Norte’s renowned 1970 narcocorrido “Contrabando y Traición” (Smuggling and Betrayal), which presents us with the legend of Camelia, a drug smuggler who, when betrayed by her lover, shoots him seven times and disappears with their marijuana-laden car. Of her, as the corrido says, “nothing more is ever known.” The song’s heroine existed as pure fiction until 1986, when a suicide at a train depot (and a photograph of a woman mourning the body) led to suspicion that she was more than a legend. Two women claimed to be the song’s inspiration, and the libretto shows us the efforts to track down the real Camelia and the “truth” of her story.
Queen of the Underworld? Tragically betrayed lover who now lives to serve God? Or pure fantasy? Less about Camelia than the legend of Camelia and the cult of notoriety, the blood-drenched libretto, in Spanish and English, pushes forward at a relentless pace. Compact and efficient (the performance lasted slightly more than an hour, with no intermission) the non-linear work slides effortlessly through different time periods and alternate versions of Camelia’s story. A journalist from the tabloid Alarma! locates a woman claiming to be Camelia, and she is no more help than anyone in sorting fact from fiction. At the end, we never settle on a “truth” about her. We have a range of truths to choose from, all mythic and none more convincing than the next.
The omnivorous score draws from several traditions. Instrumentation and rhythmic elements that draw from traditional Mexican styles (brass, guitar and accordion are prominent) are wedded to a modernist sensibility (repeating figures, recorded elements, drone), and mixed with some rueful cabaret and achingly beautiful lyric passages — this with an almost continual tension. Characters are in perpetual flight, pursuing and being pursued. One never forgets that the action takes place outside the law, with all the paranoia, panic and threat of casual murder that that implies. The dissonant, disorienting, aggressive and complex scoring captures the hovering blackness magnificently. Gunshots serve as percussion elements, and the promise of death is in the first downbeat.
Enivia Mendoza carried the title role, moving from brutal drug maven to misunderstood retiree with poise and conviction — a deep, throaty, resonant voice and a strong emotive connection to the text, this was a woman in full. In the finale, Mendoza in a fluid, entrancing, unaccompanied solo, closed matters with mystery and defiance. The angelic beauty of Ortiz’s melody had all the more impact, considering that just a few minutes earlier we had been watching a severed head in full flight.
As a respite from the gunplay and throat-slitting, Nova Safo, as El Tigre, had one of the performance’s shining moments in a sly and sardonic turn as the lead vocalist of the original corrido. Other standouts included baritone Adam Meza, clear, stable and confident in three different roles; John Matthew Myers, well-cast as the persistent tabloid hack; and John Atkins in a dry take as an academic explaining the history and meaning of the corrido. Soprano Susan Kotses made the most of her brief turn in the spotlight, deftly piercing through the orchestra with focused tone and elegant phrasing. Maria Cristina Navarro added her engaging and sonorous voice to the mix.
Gloria Carrasco provided the pitch-perfect sets and costumes; action was augmented by the Nannette Brodie Dance Theater. Company multi-hyphenate Andreas Mitisek skillfully pulled the combined musical forces together, giving the singers ample support while keeping the constant shifts in meter from edging out of hand. Teri M. Christian negotiated the woodwind parts with artistry.