Long Beach Opera's 'Camelia la Tejana' Doesn't Quite Deliver the Goods

Long Beach Opera's 'Camelia la Tejana' Doesn't Quite Deliver the Goods
Keith Ian Polakoff

Long Beach Opera
'Camelia la Tejana'
Terrace Theater

By: Greggory Moore
Los Tigres del Norte's "Contrabando y Tración," the song that sparked the narco-corrido boom, has captured imaginations on both sides of the border with its story of "Camelia the Texan," a female dope-smuggler with the cajones to kill her partner when he attempts to betray her. "Of Camelia and the money, nothing more was ever known," the song concludes. But composer Gabriela Ortiz uses this enigmatic ending as a launchpad for her opera Camelia la Tejana: Only the Truth!, which places us on the border of fact and myth and has us look in both directions for the real Camelia, if she exists. Through the eyes of a historian and a blogger, a reputable journalist and a tabloid TV show, and both the composer and singer of the song that made Camelia famous, we find images of la Tejana, though ultimately we cannot know whether we've seen her at all.

It's a compelling conceit. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite pay off. Composer Gabriela Ortiz's music doesn't always seem to support Rubén Ortiz Torres's libretto, which itself is a bit too expository. That's not to say there aren't some lovely twists here on the traditional operatic form--for example, how Ortiz cleverly utilizes the cowbell to inject Tejano strains into the operatic layers.

As with the work itself, Long Beach Opera's conception fails to deliver on its promise. The set--a high, square riser rings a stripped-down LBO orchestra, over the top of which runs a quasi-drawbridge I wish I could play on--allows for a compelling opening scene of a nighttime border crossing (a truly neat bit of dark foreboding in Ortiz's music here). But repetitive stage direction and choreography at time casts this potential asset in the role of liability, noticeably dormant while too little of interest is taking place around it. There's a similar issue with the triptych of projection screens towering overhead. Nice idea that works in moments (notably, a TV Azteca broadcast), but too often the visual atmospherics don't really engage.

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I'm too tin-eared vis-à-vis opera singing to say much about the vocal performances. All in all this didn't strike me as one of LBO's strongest lineups; and early on the ensemble was almost inaudible in relation to the orchestra. But Enivia Mendoza, pulling double-duty as a pair of possible real-life Camelias, is a clear standout, strong, confident, and clarion throughout.

¡Únicamente La Verdad! ends on an aesthetic high note, the one moment when all the possibilities in play are fully realized. On the raised drawbridge, the Camelia of legend sings her own version of "Contrabando y Tración", her imago sitting cross-legged at her feet, the music a haunting admixture of corrido with orchestral mystery. Nothing more of Camelia was ever known, she whispers, nada. It's an effective way to close this U.S. premiere. Is it enough to propel the work onward, or will continued success prove as elusive as the truth about Camelia? Tiempo al tiempo.

*The performance has its final show tonight at the Terrace Theater. For details on purchasing tickets, click here.

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