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‘Desert Song’ in a real desert

By Betty Ligon

Original article published 6/19/2011

You may never have seen “Desert Song,” the popular Sigmund Romberg musical of 1926.

But I’ll bet you’ve tapped your foot to the martial beat of “Stouthearted Men,” and listened to other old favorites like “Blue Heaven,” “Stranger in Paradise” and “One Alone,” without knowing whence they came.

El Paso Opera’s wired artistic and general director David Grabarkewitz knew it and spotted immediately how appropriate the musical would be for patrons living in the Southwestern desert.

The three recent sold-out performances at Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, nestled under Mount Cristo Rey’s craggy face, proved how instinctive he is about operatic events.

Since the way to a patron’s approval is often through his stomach, a gourmet dinner was supplied with the expertise of Marina Ardovino, who invented a way to create chicken so it hinted a Mexican flavor, with a flan-like dessert to die for.

For El Paso audiences, David tinkered with the storyline. Instead of the original setting of a World War I Moroccan desert, we were whisked to 1911 and the Mexican Revolution as it could have happened in these parts.

Tongue in cheek all the way, we first saw four pretty shop girls working at The Popular!

They were Irene, Irena Quijas; Izzy, Isabel Velaquez; Helen, Helena Yip; and Olive, Olivia Douglas. Cast names same as the actors, in case you were wondering.

Four brash guys, Joe, Joseph Quintana; Guy, Guillermo Flores; Billy, William Gilbert and Alexis, Alexis Montoya, spend time flirting with the girls. Joe puts the make on Irene but is shut out.

Scenes are set on two stages across the patio from each other. Up pop four masked Mexican Revolutionary fighters led by Red Shadow. They invade The Popular looking for supplies.

Red Shadow invites Irene to join him in his mountain hideout. When she screams her refusal, he drags her offstage. End of Act One!

The second act is full of chases, in and around our tables. A Spanish gypsy woman, Carmen Diaz Walker, and a swaggering Pancho Villa, Carlos Aldaz, kept the action full of intrigue. And the romance with songs like “Deep in My Heart” and “Blue Heaven” are great as sung by Red Shadow, aka Joe, and Irene.

Most of the voices belong to students and graduates of the University of Texas at El Paso, and members of El Paso’s Young Artist Program. All of them were quite good. The singers who portrayed Joe and Irene both projected a sublime sound and a sparkling demeanor.

Robert Ardovino’s lovely outdoor patio makes a smashing stage. Hope to see similar use of it in future.

Copyright 2011 El Paso Inc.