Uneven production apart, Lecuona’s “Maria” worth seeing

Mon Jun 07, 2010 at 4:29 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Ernesto Lecuona

Chamber Opera Chicago’s ambitious production of Ernesto Lecuona’s Maria la O offers a spectacular conclusion to their season, the collaborative effort of many disparate elements coming together.

Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) was a big name in Cuban music from the thirties through the 1950s, checking out of Cuba when Castro checked in. He was, among many other musical accomplishments, a master of the zarzuela, the traditional Spanish operetta form. His style in this popular genre is wildly eclectic, with influences from show tunes, Euro-American operettas, full-blown operas like Traviata and Carmen and the sensuous dances and rhythms of the Afro-Cuban diaspora.

Maria la O retells the 19th-century story of the lower-class mestiza courtesan in love with a handsome young white landowner’s son. Although somewhat edited for political correctness, the text, translated into English by Erik Camayd-Freixas, reflects the racial and social stereotypes of a bygone era. The young man is engaged to be married to a sweet and innocent girl of his own race and class and is persuaded to prefer his material well-being with her over his passion for Maria, the dark and sensuous temptress. The melodrama is thus set up and proceeds to its ultimate tragic ending.

Ultimately, the piece is dependent on the larger-than-life personality and voice of Maria. In the title role, company artistic director Barbara Landis was clearly stimulated by the production’s prevailing energy, and carried her part off with professional flair. But but so much more was needed both vocally and dramatically to create that charismatic life force that should drive the action.

Elsewhere, some truly standout performances abound: the clear. even tenor of Frederick J. Joseph as the weak but lovable Fernando; the dramatic bass-baritone of Ricardo Herrera as a violent renegade from the barrio in love with Maria; and the evening’s finest singer, pure-voiced soprano Michelle Areyzaga as the sweet and innocent Tula. There were some nice broad comedic turns by Thomas M. Shea as an absurd shopkeeper in vain pursuit of Maria’s favors; and baritone Henry Pleas intoned the riveting African-tinged Karabali song with chorus.

The flashy dance numbers were a whirlwind of colors from the opening party scene through the proletarian laments of the poor folk of the Mangrove, a marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of old Havana. Costumes and lighting were of a piece with the high production values throughout.

Cuban musical director, Alfredo Munar, who worked with Lecuona himself, recreated and arranged the musical score from his lifelong familiarity with the work and its composer. He conducts a sizable group made up of members of the Civic Orchestra in spicy dance-inflected and percussive rhythms that bring the work to life.

Juan Pedro Somoza, also a native of pre-Castro Cuba, brings a real energy and authenticity to the staging of this 1930 work, and the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, under their long-time director Dame Libby Komaiko, provides the dynamic dance sequences that are an integral part of the action.

But enchantment with the things that were so right about this ambitious production could not completely erase some serious problems.  The spoken dialogue was stilted and delivered in a stentorian fashion, a defect compounded by the harsh over-amplification of the voices and the polyglot accents that were unconvincing at best.

All the same, this is a production not to be missed, offering a rare opportunity to witness a long-lost art form in an authentic recreation that is inspired and engaging.  Much credit is due to Chamber Opera Chicago for undertaking the job of creative resuscitation.

There will be two further performances of Maria la O at the Athenaeum Theater 7:30 p.m. June 11th and 7:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. June 13th. www.chamberoperachicago.org.

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