‘Song-Cycle’ Opera Cuts To Core Of Human Trafficking

Susan Narucki in a scene from the chamber opera ‘Cuatro Corridos.’

Hebert Vásquez, Hilda Paredes, Arlene Sierra, and Lei Liang: Cuatro Corridos: A Chamber Opera, with libretto by Jorge Volpi. Susan Narucki,  soprano and artistic director, Pablo Gómez, guitar, Aleck Karis, piano, & Ayano Kataoka, percussion.  1 CD, Bridge 9473

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW – The definition of what constitutes “opera” is expanding rapidly in the 21st century as resources become scarcer, attention spans get shorter, current events become more of an attraction for composers, and impresarios double down on their never-ending search for younger audiences. With its hot, up-to-the-minute topic and slimmed-down ensemble, cast, and time span (53 minutes), Cuatro Corridos fits the definition of these new breed “operas” and is among the better ones I’ve come across.

Cuatro Corridos is a disturbing 2013-vintage piece about human sexual trafficking on the California/Mexico border, an outrage that has been going on for more than a hundred years. It adapts the traditional Mexican narrative song form known as the corrido to avant-garde vocal and instrumental techniques but doesn’t entirely exclude the traditional folk element — at least in the beginning.

Four composers – two Mexicans, Hebert Vásquez and Hilda Paredes, and two Americans, Lei Liang and Arlene Sierra – were enlisted to compose one corrido apiece of more-or-less equal length. Each of the four sections bears the name of a woman. Two are female victims of human trafficking, a third is a female gang accomplice who was put in charge of keeping the girls in line, and the fourth is a Mexican-American policewoman who addresses the news media about the arrest of the Salazar Brothers human trafficking cartel in 2001. The entire piece is affectingly sung — in Spanish, English, and the Aztec Nahuatl language — by soprano Susan Narucki. In other words, on CD it’s more of a song cycle than a chamber opera per se.

Vásquez’s section, “Azucena,” is the most varied and interesting. Attractive Mexican folk-song-like passages, with glittering marimba and piano, are broken up by harsh, spare, stabbing dissonance as the text becomes brutal and explicit. Sierra’s “Dalia” trips along in syncopation,  suggesting the galloping of horses as the narrative is taken up by the accomplice, who knows that she will “go to hell” for her actions but does as she’s told in her male-dominated society.

Soprano Susan Narucki is the sole voice in the work.

Liang’s “Rose” has a striking, spiky splattering of percussion effects as Narucki pursues an angular line that occasionally resorts to Sprechstimme. Parades’ “La tierra de miel (Violeta),” the longest, most tragic, and – for performers and listeners alike – most demanding corrido of the four, depicts moments of terror as Violeta tells the story of her friend Iris, who tried to run away from the gang but was caught and murdered.

Although there are a few moments where the textures become tryingly sparse and arid, the piece effectively makes its points. Moreover, Donald Trump’s loud intention to build a “beautiful wall” on the border will only compound and heighten the potential appeal of this work; indeed, the CD just happened to have been released four weeks before Election Day. Hmm.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.