María de Buenos Aires
Music by Astor Piazzolla
A riveting reinterpretation
|Chicago Opera Theater i/a/w Luna Negra Dance Theater presents|
|María de Buenos Aires|
Review by Clint May
As Director Andreas Mitisek drolly notes in his now infamous opening “letters from the artist,” the tango is a vertical expression of a horizontal activity. In Mitisek’s interpretation of Astor Piazzolla’s tango operita, which first premiered in 1968, the surrealist plot has been updated to comment on the tragedy of events that would occur just a few years after the original debut in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War.’ What was once a sensual dance has been perverted to the precursor to a rape. In this case, the rape of the soul of the tango and by extension Argentina itself, made flesh in the form of María, the gutter saint born on a day when “God was drunk.” Mitisek has performed this interpretation before as the artistic director of the Long Beach Opera in 2012, and has brought it to Chicago just a little over a year later (this is the Chicago stage premiere) to continue shedding its tainted light and polemic commentary on events few may remember or even be aware of.
Not that poor Payador (Gregorio Luke, in a speaking role) could ever forget. Alone with his liquor, he reflects sorrowfully from the present day back to the events of the rebellion that cost him the love of his life. From the throes of long forgotten faces, only María (Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) emerges recognizable, pulsing on the rhythm of the tango that birthed her. While “Seven Minutes in Heaven” plays, she introduces herself to the young Payador (Gregorio Gonzalez). Eventually they marry, but months later Payador joins the rebellion and is captured. María flees safety to find him, seducing the military in an attempt to gain information. Instead, she is brutalized and thrown in a cell, where she finds Payador in the cell next to his (in the original, she awakens in Hell), where his comforting advice to remember the woman she was is unable to stop her from collapsing and succumbing to death.
Every element of Chicago Opera Theater’s production is high-concept. One of the most innovative (or distracting, depending on how much of an opera purist you are) effects is that the frontmost scrim is never lifted. The “set,” as well as the evocation of memories, is projected as a video on the scrim while the actors and dancers are highlighted in tenebreso behind. I found it a compelling device to evoke the sense of memories’ inherently faded nature, and the videos (also by Mitisek, who appears to have bitten off a lot with this production) help give a historical context to the proceedings at some points and evoke abstractions at others.
Horacio Ferrer’s poetry evokes the Beat Generation; surreal and full of dense metaphor that casts a haunting spell full of twisted images and jarring juxtapositions (the opera is sung in Spanish with English supertitles). Combined with Piazzolla’s tango, the pulse and throb of this operita is brought to sybaritic life by the Luna Negra Dancers, who act as spirits, friends, enemies, guards, etc. Several types of tango are on display, mingled with ballet, waltz, modern, etc. Though this not what one would consider a “showpiece” opera with lots of traditional opera-style singing, Southwell shines as the central figure, both distressingly human and and also a transcendental figure not unlike a Virgin Mary suffering her own incarnation of the Stations of the Cross. Peter Soave on the bandoneón turns one note into many emotional evocations.
As I was quite critical of COT’s previous offering of The Fall of the House of Usher; how I felt that the modern update didn’t work, I’d like to go out of my way to praise Mitisek’s reinvention. Repurposing the original plot—with its more overt religious themes and fantastical elements—into a work of social and political commentary without changing a word is something I’ve rarely seen done so successfully in any art form, let alone opera. It is one of those rare works whose gravity only truly sets in upon reflection. With only a few performances remaining, act quickly to see this “María tango, slum María, María night, María fatal passion, María love of Buenos Aires.”
María de Buenos Aires continues through April 28th at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (map), with performances April 24 and 26 at 7:30pm, April 28 at 3pm. Tickets are $42-$125, and are available by phone (312.704.8414) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ChicagoOperaTheater.org. (Running time: 75 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
behind the scenes
Andreas Mitisek (conductor, director, concept video, production designer), Amy Thompson (production stage manager), Darin Burnett (asst. stage manager), Rick Combs (tech director), David Lee Bradke (asst. lighting design and direction), Nick Sieben (props supervisor), Brandy Karlsen (wardrobe, asst. costume design), Christine Conley (wigs, makeup design), Adam Flemming (video designer), Dan Weingarten (lighting), Liz Lauren (photos)