LA JOLLA — It turns out that even those ripe, red, fragrant local strawberries that help make May farmers' markets so seductive can have, as beauty sometimes does, sad tales to tell. A new opera's undercover job is to taste the flavor of that sadness.
And after seeing the world premiere Wednesday night at UC San Diego of "Cuatro Corridos," an intensely disturbing operatic investigation into sex trafficking around the strawberry farms of San Diego, I was more tempted by bananas than strawberries for breakfast the next morning, even though they may have their own hidden tragedies.
In "Cuatro Corridos" ("Four Corridos"), four composers (two Mexican, one Chinese, one American) imagine the inner lives of four women intertwined in a case here several years ago, when those farms became known as the "Fields of Love." For years, three brothers kidnapped Mexican women and forced them to serve as prostitutes for the illegal migrant workers.
The roots of this startling incident run as deep as those in Greek tragedy. A village in pre-Columbian Mexico, as librettist Jorge Volpi writes in his introduction to "Cuatro Corridos," once had a tradition of raising girls from early childhood to be prostitutes who would be sold to enemy tribes. The Salazar Juárez brothers managed to bring that tradition up to date until the police finally dismantled their notorious network in 2001.
"Cuatro Corridos" is a one-woman chamber opera initiated by the new music soprano Susan Narucki. Its instrumental component is but a trio of guitar, piano and percussion. Its four parts last but an hour total. The staging in the Experimental Theater of the Conrad Prebys Music Center is against a simple setting — a chair and table, a couple of mounds of sand with piles of discarded women's clothes. But the opera is not vocally, instrumentally or emotionally modest.
The libretto's style is written in the verse structure of the narrative Mexican corrido song form. Coincidentally, Long Beach Opera recently presented the Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz's "Camelia la Tejana," which takes its subject matter from kidnapping and drug trafficking across the border and is inspired by a popular corrido. But Volpi's verse is more experimentally poetic and as alarmingly ripe in its imagery as, well, May strawberries.
The first woman, Azucena, learns of men's cruelty when she is dragged to California, tied up, pricked, punctured and left reeking "of spittle, of semen, of disenchantment." Herbert Vázquez's score fractures Mexican folk styles of their enchantment.
Dalia, whose skin was once "soft as satin" but has grown wrinkled and ugly, begins by declaring: "I will go to hell." Arlene Sierra's multilayered music sends her there with violent percussion attacks and anguished vocal lines. A collaborator with the Salazar Juárez brothers, Dalia is as tragically disenchanted a figure as her victims. She serves her husband, survives, and understands damnation.
Rose is a cop. She announces in unadorned language the San Diego police arrest of the brothers. "Do you ask yourselves, gentlemen," she asks the press, "what will happen to these señoritas, illegal, without their papers, who were freed today?"
Lei Liang underscores this with unexpectedly subtle and colorful instrumental textures and focused drumbeats that use powerful eloquence to reveal, astonishingly and brilliantly, an unrelenting tragedy with no resolution.
Finally, Violetta, another prostitute, tells of her friend Iris, slender and not yet 20, sent by her father to "a land of milk and honey … where dollars grow on trees." Iris' first rape was in the car even before she reached the border. The opera's last line: "I wither from sadness / a flower without dew."
Hilda Paredes provides sorrowful music here that is almost too much. She, like the other composers, is a substantial Modernist; her style is complex and difficult. But she knows how to drain substance away too, leaving meaningful emptiness. Narucki, commandingly theatrical throughout, succumbed in the end to the full weight of tragedy.
The production had a lot of parts, including a "border wall" with projections and graphics, but mostly stayed out of the way of the terrible tales told. But the instrumentalists (guitarist Pablo Gómez, pianist Aleck Karis and percussionist Steven Schick) were alive to every nuance.
UCSD has taken "Cuatro Corridos" seriously with panel discussions on sex trafficking the day after the premiere and repeat performances Friday and Saturday nights.