COT’s revamped “Maria” makes for brilliant and audacious theater

Thu Apr 25, 2013 at 6:42 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Peabody Southwell and Gregorio Gonzalez in Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren

One has to start with the fact that as an opera, Maria de Buenos Aires is impossible to present.

Astor Piazzolla’s 1968 tango operita is less a cohesive musical drama than a series of poetic meditations on the elusive and mysterious title figure, “goddess and whore …. born on a day when God was drunk.”

There is no action to speak of: rather Horacio Ferrer’s libretto is cast in a vein of florid extravagant symbolist imagery, which sounds remarkable in Spanish but often reads baffling and impenetrable in translation with its cheap-perfumed mix of religion, sex, the street and the ever-present tango. What Maria de Buenos Aires does have in abundance is Piazzolla’s magnificent music, deftly varied and containing the nostalgia, melancholy and sensuality of his best nuevo tango style.

Chicago Opera Theater’s current production of Maria de Buenos Aires, which runs through Sunday, is not your father’s Maria. To a great extent it’s not Piazzolla and Ferrer’s either.

COT artistic director Andreas Mitisek has freely cut, rearranged and even rewritten the libretto, updating the action to the time of Argentina’s “dirty war.” From 1976 to 1983, a brutal military government was in power, which abused and tortured many opponents, leftists, students and others, causing more than 30,000 to be killed or simply vanish.

While Maria purists–if there are any–may protest this kind of unfettered revisionism, despite its wonderful music, Piazzolla’s operita is a challenge to stage, and is a work that needs all the help it can get.

That it receives in abundance from COT’s audacious, often brilliant production, which was premiered last year at Long Beach Opera. This is Mitisek’s show—as conductor, stage director, and production designer—and it is an almost unqualified success.

The first image is astonishing, a huge towering projected scrim composed of small photographs of hundreds of Argentinians who vanished during the era. One by one they flutter like dead leaves to the ground, revealing the action behind. Some of the images are more successful than others—the softcore images for the love-making of the young couple is like a bad Hallmark video—but for the most part the blending and coordination of projections, live action, singing and music from the pit was excuted with great skill, imagination and panache.

In this more linear political retooling, Maria’s story is told in flashback by the Old Payador, her former lover, who traces their days as students, accidental revolutionaries, and political prisoners.

This conceit works for the most part, though making Maria a victim of political persecution–here she is viciously and graphically raped in prison—tends to dilute the complexity and mythic status of the character as both victim and oppressor, and makes her reborn state at the end of the opera more as a political figure than transcendent woman.

Voices were amplified, for which there is precedent in this intimate work.  With the usual  asterisk in such circumstances, the singers acquitted themselves well. Peabody Southwell was inspired in the title role. With Mitisek’s projections making fine use of her sad expressive eyes, Southwell was fearless as a sexy and alluring Maria, singing with a smoky, flexible mezzo-soprano albeit with some shallowness on top.

As the Older Payador (El Duende) who serves as narrator and recalls his student days and romance with Maria, Gregorio Luke brought an apt resonant gravitas and idiomatic flavor to Ferrer’s florid lines. Gregorio Gonzalez as the Young Payador displayed what sounded like a vital and resonant baritone. Mark Bringelson brought an apt malign menace to Marco, Maria’s interrogator.

Members of the Luna Negra Dance Theater contributed mightily to the evening’s success, taking on multiple assignments as tango dancers, military guards, political prisoners and student demonstrators.

Mitisek conducted the crack nine-musician ensemble with a sure sense of drama and fine feel for the languor and vitality of Piazzolla’s score, drawing superb playing with especially dazzling piano work by Codrut Birsan.

Note: While Mitisek’s versatility in this production was truly impressive, COT’s new chief would do well to jettison his pre-performance “letter from the composer” shtick. In addition to getting tired and predictable, the curtain speech tends to take the air out of the room and dilute tension and anticipation.

There are two more performances of Maria de Buenos Aires 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday. chicagooperatheater.org; 312-704-8414.

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