Arizona Opera 2018-19 Review: Maria de Buenos Aires
Piazzolla’s Masterpiece Gets Solid Run From Catalina Cuervo & CompanyBy Maria Nockin
Composer Astor Piazzolla and librettist Horacio Ferrer premiered the Spanish language tango opera “Maria de Buenos Aires” in that city in 1968. Arizona Opera presented it at the Temple of Music and Art in Tucson on October 6, 2018. The opera tells of life in the demi-monde found on the wrong side of the tracks.
Its characters are prostitutes, wife beaters, unfaithful clergy, and thieves. None of them do what society demands of them but they all dance extremely well. The libretto says Maria “was born on a day when God was drunk.” The story’s narrator is a fascinating character called El Duende. A goblin, or shape shifter, El Duende generally does the unexpected and spreads mischief around the city.
The Main Players
Catalina Cuervo was an impressive Maria who sang her soliloquy “Io soy Maria” with great passion and plum velvet low notes.
As El Duende, Celeste Lanuza was a surreal and sometimes evil character whose actions were often reckless. Toward the end of the show, her portrayal of El Duende began to strain credibility, but I found it impossible to take my eyes off this artist. All the singers and actors in this show wore microphones and there was no opportunity for the audience to hear unamplified operatic voices with well-knit registers spreading gorgeous sound throughout the theater.
As staged by director John de los Santos, the ninety-minute opera consisted of seventeen individual scenes with no intermission. His staging was very dark and Maria never seemed to have a good day to contrast with the evil that surrounded her. Although the show’s lyrics are poetic in nature and do not tell a literal story, the director made the drama easily understandable to those in the audience who did not speak Spanish. English titles helped, of course, but not all the lines spoken or expressed in a kind of sprechstimme could be communicated in the work’s time frame.
Liliana Duque Piñeiro’s scenery consisted of tall box shapes, some of them decorated with 20th-century art. They seemed to emerge from the shadows and loom above the characters who spent their lives in the city. There was also a circular staircase that went nowhere and ended like a pulpit from which no one would ever preach. Chad Jung’s lighting added a great deal to the ambiance of this modern art cityscape. Abe Jacob’s sound design used body mikes so that both speech and song were easily heard.
Breaking Down the Work
In the first scene, “Alevare,” a little girl is born as the mischievous El Duende looked on, possibly with evil thoughts in his heart. In the second, “Tema de Maria,” A child plays the innocent Maria watching her parents fight because her father came home drunk. In the “Balada,” Colombian star vocalist, Catalina Cuervo, as Maria, helps her mother clean while they listen to the radio. They later watch two men, Lester and Laurence Gonzalez, dance an incredibly ornate tango. The footwork of these Cuban-born twin dancers was absolutely spectacular.
The fourth scene focuses on Maria alone as she sings of her fascination with Buenos Aires, the city of her dreams. It was Catalina Cuervo’s shining moment. Her charisma held all eyes captive as she sang with bold, smooth caramel tones that expressed her passion for life and her lovers.
In the “Milonga” Maria meets the radio singer or Payador, sung with glinting tones by the bronze-voiced Luis Alejandro Orozco. His song is enchanting and he easily seduces her. Orosco’s Payador became one of the few positive characters in an increasingly dangerous place.
In “Fugue and Mystery” Maria dances with a neighborhood thief and goes off with him while the ever-present El Duende watches and bides his time. In this staging, evil wins at every opportunity until the very end of the piece. While Piazzolla charms the audience with new style tangos, Ferrer shows us that evil is always present in one form or another.
In the “Poema Valseado” Maria wanders the streets of the city and gives an apple to a “leper,” really El Duende, before joining her lover, the thief. The thief leads Maria to an underground cafe where she dances for the patrons and is assaulted. Meanwhile, the Payador looks for Maria even though she left him during the night, while members of the demi-monde sing of her prowess as a lady of the evening. When the Payador finds her, the thief threatens him and Maria stabs the thief.
As we hear the “Contramilonga,” mothers place candles on the graves of their children. Here Piazzolla and Ferrer commemorate victims of the “Dirty War” (1976-1983) in which suspected dissidents often disappeared. El Duende enters with a wheelbarrow containing the corpse of a young adult who has disappeared.
Months later, Maria, now visibly pregnant, returns to the graveyard. Much of her spirit has disappeared and the ghosts of the cemetery ask her to join them. When construction workers enter the graveyard to tear it apart, the Payador, who arrives with them, sings about Maria who answers him.
El Duende appears as the Archbishop in the Basilica of Our Lady. He leads priests and nuns in a sacreligious service as Maria enters looking for sanctuary. Returning to the street in the “Allegro Tangabile,” she hears only ridicule from her former admirers. The Payador finds her, however, and takes her away as she goes into labor.
El Duende is waiting to kidnap the newborn, but the Payador and Maria escape with the infant as El Duende is fooled by a fake baby-bundle made of dried flower petals. Has another Maria been born in the slums of Buenos Aires? This short but grinding verismo work tells of the pervasive existence of evil that we try not to see even though it’s all around us in our own cities.
Conductor Scott Terrell led a small ensemble that included virtuoso bandoneon player Hector del Curto and fine guitarist Colin Davin. Their playing added an Argentine flavor to the dozen usual instruments that accompanied the opera. Piazzolla’s music combines jazz with traditional tango and an occasional reference to the classics. The orchestral music and the dance numbers were a total delight and the balance between the vocalists on stage and the small orchestra worked well in this 600-seat house.
“Maria de Buenos Aires” is among the grittiest of verismo works and Arizona Opera placed it in smaller halls than the ones used for more commonly heard operas. The Temple of Music and Art was totally sold out, however, and its patrons showed at the end of the evening that they appreciated the opportunity to experience this unusual co production with San Diego Opera.