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Love, loss and broken souls framed in tangos: COT etches dolor of ‘María de Buenos Aires’

Submitted by on Apr 23, 2013 – 4:51 pm

Review: “María de Buenos Aires” by composer Astor Piazzolla with libretto by Horacio Ferrer, produced by Chicago Opera Theater at Harris Theater through April 28. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Bittersweet remembrance with a tango pulse hangs over the surreal mindscape of “María de Buenos Aires,” the operatic love story created – perhaps the right word is insinuated – by composer Astor Piazzolla and poet Horacio Ferrer, and staged with bold, evocative imagination at Chicago Opera Theater.

Piazzolla (1921-92), who elevated the sensual tango to a classical art form, called “María de Buenos Aires” a “tango operita.” It is through and through an expression of the dance as a physical and lyrical mirror of passion, suffering, loss and resignation. But this opera is many things – a tragedy, a litany of human rights abuses perpetrated by Argentina’s ruling juntas and, not incidentally, a metaphorical melding of the Passion of Jesus and the pain of his mother Mary.

Though “María” actually premiered in 1968, the political oppression at its roots vividly anticipates Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” of the 1970s and ‘80s, when tens of thousands of citizens were swept from sight by a ruthless government. Chicago Opera Theater’s multi-media production drips sorrow from every pore.

Three powerful voices fill the principal roles. In the folk-singer assignment as María, mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell brings a smoldering quality – physical as well as vocal – to this alluring and melancholy soul. Gregorio Luke, in the primarily speaking part of the older Payador, conveys the nameless aching of a man whose loss time has not diminished. And baritone Gregorio Gonzalez applies luster and warmth to Piazzolla’s heated tangos for the Young Payador.

“María de Buenos Aires” presents something of a paradox. On the one hand, the narrative arc of this 80-minute opera is fairly straight-forward: In a time of political turbulence, María, young and poor and game for the struggle toward greater personal freedom, meets the like-minded Payador. When he is arrested and imprisoned, she commits herself to the self-debasing mission of finding him.

Taking her search to society’s underbelly, she becomes a prostitute – only to be arrested herself, and to suffer abuses including rape at the hands of her jailers. Though Payador endures, María dies. Here’s where the opera gets complicated, or anyway murky.

In the original version, María gives birth to an infant variously interpreted as the renewal of her former, virginal self, or even as Jesus, in which view María is double-imaged as both Mary and her son.

In COT’s staging – directed and conducted by company general director Andreas Mitisek, who also designed the production with its crucial video component – María becomes specifically Christ-like. We see her gauzily draped corpse pulled from her prison cell, upside down, arms flung out to form an inverted crucifix. Mitisek’s intent couldn’t be plainer. Thus is María redeemed. Payador’s salvation, his peace, lies in his memory of her as, now an old man, he recalls their story.

And it might seem just that simple, were we hearing only Piazzolloa’s permutations of the tango, languid and melancholy and potent, played by the little chamber ensemble fronted by Peter Soave’s eloquent bandonéon, that grandly voiced accordion-like instrument, soul mate to the tango.

Adding heightened immediacy and emotional impact are the dancers of Luna Negra, writhing through Gustavo Ramirez Sansano’s stylized choreography – combined with a constant video backdrop of images of riot-torn streets and prison scenes that blend into the live stage drama. Such a wordless melodrama, or multi-dimensional ballet, might be enough to carry us down its narrative path.

The rub comes with the fractured, albeit absorbing, imagery of Horacio Ferrer’s libretto, sung in Spanish with English surtitles. Ferrer’s tumbling metaphors, keenly reminiscent of 19th century French symbolist poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are stunning, evocative, fascinating, but nearly impossible to process while trying to watch events onstage or discern between what’s live and what’s actually video.

To really get it, one would need to see this production a second time, or better a third. And that surely would not be time misspent.

“María de Buenos Aires” is 80 minutes of almost unremitting gloom, illuminated ironically enough by the anxiety-inducing video collages devised by Adam Flemming as well as lighting by Dan Weingarten that dramatically blurs the line between stage and film. And not least among Mitisek’s many contributions is a set design that allows all these elements to be pulled together into an experience that transcends realism even while feeling profoundly real. It is magical theater.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell as María. Descending: Peabody Southwell as María, with Gregario Gonzalez as the Younger Payador. María (Peabody Southwell, foreground) infiltrates the underground in search of her husband. The Older Payador (Gregario Luke) reflects on María’s fate. The imprisoned Maria (Peabody Southwell) steadily weakens at the hands of her tormentor (Mark Bringelson). Below: Scene with video projections from “María de Buenos Aires.” María (Peabody Southwell) as a video image with Gregorio Gonzelez and Gregorio Luke as the Younger and Older Payador, respectively. Payador as a young man (Gregorio Gonzalez) awaits the bus (video image) that will take him to fight for the resistance. Prison scene, staged with projections. (Photos by Liz Lauren)

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