In 1886, a Mexican musician named Luis Garzón immigrated to Minneapolis, eventually opening a small grocery store in St. Paul.
Garzón's story is told with "Tienda," a new chamber opera by Reinaldo Moya, the Schubert Club's composer-in-residence for the past two seasons, and librettist Caitlin Vincent. The tale is uncomfortably relevant today, culminating with the enforced repatriation frenzy of the Depression-era 1930s. Garzón is spared summary deportation, but a different fate awaits many of his friends and customers.
Musically, "Tienda" fascinatingly blends classical idioms with the seductive beats and melodies of Latin America. With a basic ensemble of violin, viola, cello, guitar, piano and percussion, Venezuela-born Moya spans textures of pulsing vibrancy, subtly shading harmonies to trace the fragile emotional arc of his central characters.
Thrumming pizzicato strings mimicked an acoustic guitar in the opening scene — where Garzón takes stock in his shop — busily communicating the can-do optimism of the immigrant worker.
But in a flashback to Garzón's younger self, the work conjures a poignant undertow, flecking the vocal writing with yearning memories of the family he abandoned in his move to America.
In an unusual move, Garzón was played by two singers. Bass-baritone Adrian Rosas was the elder, more assertive tienda-keeper, while the expressive tenor Matthew Valverde voiced the younger, more vulnerable version of the character. Occasionally, this double-teaming tactic was confusing, with the young version of Garzón appearing older for his first appearance than his adult counterpart. In the end, the use of different voice registers for a single character proved unconvincing dramatically.
Another distraction was the fact that some characters sang from scores while others didn't. Though the production was billed as "semi-staged," the small set and costumes enhanced the action, while the singers with music files in their hands didn't.
There were particularly fine performances in the smaller parts from mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski as the apparently well-meaning welfare worker Edith and soprano Bergen Baker as Garzón's wife Clara. Osowski brought a Lieder singer's awareness of how to make words tell without enfeebling the melody, while Baker's ripe-toned vocalism and natural acting ability made much of her too-brief cameo.
The VocalEssence Singers of This Age, a community youth chorus, sang the choral commentaries for "Tienda" with growing confidence and an impressive instinct for the syncopated rhythms. In the climactic deportation scene, the choir turned its back on the action — a symbol, no doubt, of how easily a supine majority can enable acts of questionable morality by simply choosing not to see them.
Conductor Rafael Rodriguez led the excellent pit-band of six players, who made a vivid impression despite the somewhat dry acoustic of TPT's Studio A in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood.
"Tienda" obviously raised questions about immigration, questions that continue to be unresolved in present-day America. What lingered afterward, however, was the proud individuality of Moya's music. It movingly evoked all that can't be left behind when a person quits one country for the hope of a better future in another.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.