On a warm August evening Angela Peralta de Castera, celebrated Mexican soprano, and her 80-person opera company board the S.S. Newbern, an American steamer just arrived in La Paz from Panama; they have booked passage across the Sea of Cortez to Mazatlán, where the company will conclude its summer tour with a week of performances in the Teatro Rubio. Captain Martin Ybarra, who watches the passengers, ponders the relationships between the company, and anticipates learning more about the famous soprano and her associates.
As the ship begins the voyage and night falls, Julián Montiel y Duarte, the company’s business manager, meets the captain for conversation. Julián has known Angela since childhood, when he met her during a vocal competition; although she has forgotten that first meeting he has loved her ever since. When she returned to Mexico after a triumphant European career, he met her again. The conversation is interrupted, first by a sudden violent squall (a chubasco, as they are called in the Sea of Cortez), and finally by squabbles below deck; Julián departs to settle the company.
Ybarra checks on the status of the voyage, and is angered when a sailor suddenly collapses, presumably drunk. He sends the man below and returns to his cabin.
Angela meets him at the door. He offers her sherry; she accepts tequila and a cigar. As they converse, Angela describes her return to Mexico in the manner of a sentimental press release: not false, but very controlled All too soon, however, they are interrupted by a sailor: the captain’s presence is urgently required below decks. Ybarra leaves Angela in the company of sailors on the deck, who greet her enthusiastically. After a brief interruption by La Zepilli and La Saborini, two company sopranos who are ostentatious frenemies, the sailors beg Angela for a song. She obliges with her signature tune, “The Dove in the Tree.” In return, a sailor sings a love song in her honor.
On deck during the sailor’s song is Rosa Vargas de Montiel, Julián’s wife. Somber and bitter, she has a story she wishes to tell the captain as well—but her is once again interrupted by trouble below decks. Rosa is left to tell her story to no one. She was also a singer, and was a participant in the vocal competition that Julián remembers; she recalls it differently, and nurses a grudge against Angela for having been unjustly singled out as a star. To make matters worse, she married Julián because he seemed as interested in her then as he was in Angela—but he has forgotten that she was ever there, and when Angela returned to Mexico, Julián began an affair with her that still continues. Rosa is reduced to being the company bookkeeper, and now Julián has asked for a divorce, and she has consented. Nevertheless, she has had enough of bitterness and envy. Singing to herself, she invokes the nightingale as her emblem, hoping to face the future with hope and determination.
Suddenly a soprano cat-fight erupts from below decks. La Zepilli and La Saborini make a scene. Angela brings the shenanigans to a halt and forces the sopranos to make up. Julián, seeing Rosa, attempts to be civil, but she is still bitter. Angela tries to ease things, but with no success, and Rosa departs to her duties. Angela and Julián reminisce, and begin to hope that the tour’s conclusion in Mazatlán will also be a new beginning for them both. As the members of the company appear on deck, the ship arrives in Mazatlán.
The first mate recognizes that the troubles with the sailors has one cause: the ship is carrying Yellow Fever. (22 August, 1883—Tuesday.)
Arriving in the Plazuela Machado, Angela is greeted by rapturous acclaim: a mysterious man (the historical, legendary bandit Eraclio Bernal) hands her a white rose, the crowd serenades her, and Maclovio Castellanos, the prefect of Mazatlán, gives a welcoming speech. Angela rises to the occasion with an eloquent speech of her own. As the crowd disperses, Julián encounters Araceli, an old women who mutters strange warnings about death and ruin.
The next morning, Rosa is working at the accounts when she is visited by Beatriz Melani, an adventuress. When Mexico City’s society discovered Angela’s affair with Julián, they boycotted her performances and even hired a claque to disrupt them. Beatriz was the primary organizer of the claque; but Rosa was secretly directing them. Now, since Rosa has broken off ties, Beatriz is blackmailing her. Later on, Beatriz appears in Angela’s retinue, but Rosa has Julián expel her from the hotel.
But there are more urgent problems to consider; singers and crew are beginning to fall ill, and there is no treatment available. Angela, Julián, and Rosa unite in the face of financial ruin.
Four days later, Angela and Julián have returned from mass; she feels rather weak, but is determined to press on. But more singers are ill. As Angela strives to manage her company, she collapses into hallucinations. Julián reflects on his love for her.
The next day, an anxious crowd has gathered in the Plazuelo Machado, hoping to hear Angela sing to them. She is delirious, but goes to the balcony to perform a version of the nightingale song. Afterwards she collapses into a fever dream. When she wakes, Araceli is there as a nurse. Angela reflects on her own life, on choices made and refused.
Three days later, Julián’s divorce is final, and he has arranged for a marriage ceremony in Angela’s suite. Angela is unconscious or unresponsive, and has to be “helped” to assent to the marriage. After the officials leave, Rosa enters to make peace, Hearing the crowd again outside, Rosa dons Angela’s shawl and goes to the balcony to sing “The Dove in the Tree.” Angela awakens, and hearing Rosa, is glad to have someone take her place. She and Julián acknowledge the wrongs they have done. When Rosa returns, Julián observes that yet again, no one will know that Rosa was singing. She accepts this as a debt she owed. As Angela dies, the three of them forgive one another; Julián and Rosa watch by Angela’s bedside.
Inspired by the final weeks of the life of Ángela Peralta
Libretto by Mitchell Morris
Storyline by Mitchell Morris and Roger Bourland
© 2014 by Roger Bourland and Mitchell Morris