New York City Opera 2018-19 Review: Maria de Buenos Aires

Catalina Cuervo Leads Solid Cast in Enjoyable Showcase of Piazzolla-Ferrer’s Masterpiece

By David Salazar

Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer never intended for “Maria de Buenos Aires” to be your typical night at the theater. Known for their own countercultural artistry, they went so far as to label the work a “tango operita” and created a work filled with surrealist imagery and full of musical invention.

Written in “Lunfardo,” or the language of tango, the work features a plethora of surrealist imagery that is not necessarily tied to a linear plot or story. The general arc sees the birth of Maria, her rise, her fall, and then her resurrection into “another girl that is her and yet not her.” Per interpreter Catalina Cuervo, Ferrer himself explained that his intention was to have Maria symbolize tango’s own evolution in history.

This abstract and highly symbolic work is undeniably a double-edged sword for any director. On one hand, you have worlds of possibility as to how you can interpret the hour-and-a-half long “operita,” but at the same time, you have to find a way to find some sort of cohesion with the text itself and the three central characters that seem connected and disconnected from one another throughout.

The New York City Opera took up this task for its opening production of the 2018-19 season, bringing a successful production by Tomer Zvulun from The Atlanta Opera to (le) Poisson Rouge. The venue itself seemed an opportune place to showcase a work that itself defies true genre, though one glance at all the people standing around made you wonder a bit about the arrangement.

Untidy Conception

Ultimately, it proved a unique though not always fulfilling arrangement.

The evening got off to an unusual start with NYCO general manager Michael Capasso coming onstage to introduce the work. He proclaimed that his Opera en Español series was geared toward Spanish-speaking audiences which made up roughly 30 percent of all New Yorkers. Then the show got underway with the performance aimed at being interactive.

On the whole, Zvulun’s interpretation of the work was rather muddled and, in many ways, simplistic. He set the world of “Maria” within a context of the classical aesthetic of tango, with an emphasis on the sexualization of the genre; Maria herself rises to the status of sex icon before everyone wants a piece of her and ultimately kill her when they can’t have her.

Women were clad in skimpy, curvaceous dresses that were either red or black; the men’s shirts were of different colors, though they too didn’t look particularly unique or essential within the grand scheme of the staging. These players, who would work as the dancers and the Greek Chorus throughout the work, interacted with the main characters, but themselves never really took on a noticeable identity within the world of the story. They just seemed like they needed to be there and the overall world that they could have potentially created felt like a generalization lacking in a sense of specificity or grounding.

It didn’t help that what they did do onstage didn’t seem to be on the same level or quality of the three leads. Their chants were rather problematic at times, noticeable for their lack of synchronization in their entrances but also by the differing and uneven pronunciation in Spanish from some of its members. A singer can’t really hide pronunciation mishaps behind a musical line or phrase, and the problem is even more exacerbated when the text must be spoken aloud. When you put a native Spanish speaker next to someone that clearly isn’t and have them recite text together, it doesn’t sound right.

The dancing, as choreographed by Analía Centurión and Jeremías Fors, at times seemed repetitive, which might have been a consequence of them sometimes being called upon to fill dramatic voids that took place during musical interludes. However, as a whole, the choreography didn’t seem to indicate any particular arc or evolution or explore a vast array of the tango styles that Piazzolla’s music itself does. The story, on an abstract level, is about the evolution of tango, and it was disappointing to see that the actual visual representation of the dance itself was not an active participant in this narrative.

The Icon

This, of course, put greater emphasis on the three central figures which are fascinating combinations from around the theater landscape.

El Duende, written for a theater actor who recites throughout the evening, was originally voiced by Ferrer himself. El Payador was written for a lyric baritone voice while Maria was created for a tango singer, with some operatic moments in placed at certain points in the work. As a whole, these eclectic voices differ and converge at different moments, adding to the surrealism of the work.

It is on the director to figure out how to fit them together. This is where Zvulun’s direction shone.

The central story of Maria’s birth, rise, death, and resurrection was clearly noted and performed by Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo, who has appeared in 17 productions (including this one) of the work. She embraced the sexualized nature of the interpretation and looked like she was having a blast the entire night. The fact that she was interacting with the audience members throughout, only made her energy and excitement all the more contagious.

The role sits rather low for any singer, especially a lyric soprano like Cuervo. The hit number “Yo soy Maria,” which appears twice in the work, the second time as the “Milonga de la Anunciación,” doesn’t approach any soprano’s passaggio as it never rises past the B flat above middle C. This would place a greater emphasis on a solid chest voice to throw off the intense rhythmic fire of the piece. Cuervo, hooked up to a microphone (as all the singers and orchestra members were), definitely embodied the intense passion of Maria, her interpretation highly aggressive, particularly with accented “tara ta ta” and “la da da” during an orchestral passage in the orchestra. This gave her Maria a sultriness that certainly fit into the overall interpretation of the work. If there was one complaint it was that whoever set the volume levels on the microphones seemed to overdue it a bit with hers when compared to the other singers. When Cuervo launched her voice to its full potential, the sound emanating from the speakers was so intense that it distorted the sound somewhat uncomfortably.

And while the showstopping “Yo soy Maria” was undeniably the moment that captured everyone’s excitement throughout the evening, it was the “Carta a los Arboles y las Chimineas (Letter to the Trees and Chimneys)” that allowed Cuervo to peer deeper into the character. Here we heard the soprano’s lyric voice for a few moments, a loose and relaxed vibrato replacing the leaner and tauter qualities of her chest voice in “Yo soy Maria.” It was far more intimate, the soprano bringing the audience in with her sound, staying onstage throughout. It was a complete contrast with the famed showstopper and provided a true sense of vulnerability to the “character” of Maria.

Love Triangle

El Payador was sung by Marcelo Guzzo, whose baritone was firm and sturdy throughout the evening, his ascensions into the higher range of his voice always confident and poised. It was his lower notes, particularly in the Tangus Dei that seemed to lack sturdiness. They had a weak quaver that made the text less understandable and it was the first time in the evening where his singing lacked a sense of composure. As directed by Zvulun, his Payador was a strange mix of a lover/protector for Maria. Longing for her while also looking like a comforting father to her in other moments. She ridicules him early on as she grows in her fame as a sexual icon, but then embraces him more fully as she dies and becomes a shadow. It is his support that seems to give her the strength to revive. Of course, in the context of the final Tangus Dei, his perceived sense of defeat is almost an admission that the cycle will repeat itself with his beloved Maria likely to suffer a similar fate.

As El Duende, Milton Loayza reveled in an aggressive and antagonistic role. El Duende is a creator, but in this rendition, dressed in black, he was the polar opposite of the Payador. Where the Payador longed and protected Maria, Loayza’s Duende built up ferocious crescendos in the text, filling the stage with a different kind of passionate fire. It was the fire of anger, of power, of hostility, perhaps even of intense sexual passion that amplified the Payador’s more pure love.

These interpretations created an apt “love triangle (a rather strange one in the vein of Ferrer and Piazzolla) that gave the production life in the midst of a muddled world.

The backbone of it all was maestro Jorge Parodi, one of the major champions of this work around the world. The Argentine maestro’s interpretation hues closely to that of the composer’s 1968 recording as far as tempi go and on the whole, there was a strong sense of control in his music making. There were a few solo instruments that had rough moments at different points, but on the whole, the ensemble was cohesive with a relaxed quality that created a sense of elasticity in the music. Piazzolla and Ferrer clearly enjoyed themselves in the creation of this unique work that abounds in humor (“Maria was born on the day God was drunk,” the Duende says at one point) and Parodi’s approach allowed the listeners to feel that sense of exploration and creation.

On the whole, it was impossible not to enjoy the energy throughout (le) Poisson Rouge even if there may have been some inconsistency in the overall conception of the piece in the space. The New York City Opera still has three more productions to go this season, though Capasso did note that the company will announce some concerts in coming weeks.


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