By James Keller from “Grab bag” in the Pasatiempo (Santa Fe New Mexican)
“On Feb. 18, Opera Southwest premiered a new operatic setting of Rudolfo Anaya’s beloved novel Bless Me, Ultima. All five performances at the were sold out well before the opening, and a short West Coast run is already set for April in San Jose. The score is by the California-based composer Héctor Armienta, who also crafted the libretto in consultation with Anaya. It is an audience-friendly, easily apprehended three-act opera that, even including intermission, runs just two hours.
Anaya’s 1972 novel is a classic of Hispanic-American literature, a coming-of-age tale in which Antonio, a young boy in backwater New Mexico in the mid-20th century, tries to imagine a life path that rings true for him, balancing the competing pulls of his mother’s devout Catholicism, his father’s rowdy earthiness, and the mystical pantheism of the curandera Ultima, a traditional healer who is welcomed into the family’s home. The libretto draws selectively from the book, emphasizing “action passages” and not getting tangled up in, for example, Antonio’s theological conflicts following his first Communion.
The production was simple but pleasing, employing a multitude of still or moving projections (by Daniel Chapman) to underscore the narrative. Armienta’s appealing music was of a conservative cast, often evoking the pastoralism of Copland, sometimes proclaiming an appreciation of Britten, especially in a short orchestral interlude in Act 1 that calls to mind a corresponding passage in Peter Grimes. Folkloric music in Mexican or norteño style flavored a couple of scenes. Arias were generally short, and their lines usually unrolled at an andante pace, even when the music surrounding the vocal part strove to be more insistent. Guillermo Figueroa conducted, highlighting many niceties in Armienta’s orchestration.
Baritone Carlos Archuleta delivered an especially compelling performance as the villainous saloon-keeper Tenorio, but the cast was in general well-matched and put the piece across effectively. Antonio was depicted by Daisy Beltran, a mid-teenager who succeeded both musically and dramatically in impersonating a boy soprano. Mezzo-soprano Kirstin Chávez conveyed her role with particularly commanding vocal amplitude. Among the rest of the cast, two tenors — Javier Abreu (as Antonio’s father) and André García-Nuthmann (as Uncle Pedro) — were standouts.
I am not sure that the novel Bless Me, Ultima really has a great opera lurking in its pages. The coming-of-age story at its core is quite intimate and personal. Focusing on the conflicts among the numerous adults who populate the child’s world makes sense in terms of dramatic narrative, but a few too many of those adults remain in the libretto, pared down though it is. As a result, the novel’s heart can become obscured in this musical telling. “