Jan. 31 Syracuse Opera: Maria de Buenos Aires

Photo by Doug Wonders

Photo by Doug Wonders

Piazzolla’s ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ dances around the issue of what constitutes ‘opera’

Got tango? Sí.  Got story? No.

By David Abrams

It takes two to tango.  And if you want to do it right, you’ll need a bandoneón (a keyless, button-operated accordion popular in Argentina), as well.

Syracuse Opera does it right in its new production of Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires, the company’s second production of its 2013-2014 season.  Friday night’s opening performance provided a thoroughly entertaining evening of stylized dance music (mostly tangos and waltzes), set to the sultry choreography of Anthony Salatino and accompanied by a stellar ensemble of 10 instrumentalists spearheaded by a professional bandoneónista from New York City.

That’s entertainment, all right.  But is it opera?  That is to say, is there a valid plot in Piazzolla’s tango opera to string the dance music together into a coherent, compelling story?  And should it matter?

Certainly, one can argue that what’s needed to accompany 75-minutes of Argentinian dance music is not so much a good storyline as a good bottle of tequila.  This isn’t Wagner, after all, and the title role of Maria was intended for a folksinger, not a dramatic soprano.  But even a tango operita (Piazzolla’s term) must somehow tether the music to a plausible story — and that’s nowhere to be found in this silly and needlessly obtuse libretto by Horacio Ferrer.  Mired in incoherent metaphors and incongruous allusions, the bizarre plot to Maria ends with more twists and turns than the production’s sure-footed troupe of tango dancers.

There’s a saying in show business: When all else fails… dance.  And that pretty much describes the sum total of this Piazzolla-Ferrer experience.  It’s dance.  Show business.  The surreal-symbolist plot that chronicles the life and death of the prostitute Maria, “born on a day when God was drunk” and later giving birth to herself after being resurrected from the dead, is fodder for Alban Berg’s musical language of expressionism — not Piazzolla’s tangos.

This is one opera where you may be better off ignoring the projected supertitles altogether.  Just sit back, relax and enjoy the music and dance.  And the tequila.

Although Piazzolla calls this a tango operita, the term “tango” must be taken with a grain of salt since much of the music (both here and elsewhere in the composer’s works) are not technically tangos but rather a composite of several popular idioms, including American jazz.  This amalgam of styles is better described as nuevo tango — the musical language of Maria de Buenos Aries.

The vocal roles in this one and only opera of Piazzolla, dating from 1968, are rather minimal: Two singers and a speak-only narrator, the latter of whom represents the spirit El Duende (Milton Loayza).  The mezzo-soprano role of Maria in this production is sung (and spoken) by Catalina Cuervo, with Luis Orozco in the baritone role of El Payador.  The balance of the cast includes a small ensemble of handsomely coordinated dancers (Luba Lesser, Lisa Mattes, Juan Penaloza and Mark Tubolino), along with an assortment of seedy characters from the Buenos Aires underworld.

Cuervo crafts a worthy heroine (or anti-heroine), with an attractive soprano rich in expression and color that was especially effective in her signature number, Yo soy Maria.  The Colombian soprano has performed this role quite a number of times with other production companies, and her level of comfort in this performance was obvious.  Although the role presents little in the way of technical challenges for the singer, Cuervo — as a soprano singing a mezzo role — had to work the deep colors of her lower register, which she did with no signs of discomfort either when singing or speaking.

Beyond the singing, Cuervo’s character (which by metaphor represents the spirit of the tango) must maintain sufficient charisma to command attention whenever she comes on stage (which is a good deal of the time), and this she does quite well.  Whether dressed in a red gown as a lady of the evening, or outfitted in white as the Virgin Mary upon her reincarnation, all eyes were upon her.

As the itinerant singer El Payador, Luis Orozco sang with the large vocal presence one might expect from one whose prior experience includes such operatic roles as Papageno (The Magic Flute) and Marcello (La Bohème).  The Mexican-American baritone overcame some tightness in his voice early on to blossom into a rich and hefty baritone.  His was a well acted performance, steeped in convincing hand and body gestures, and his strong voice carried well even during the first half of the program when his microphone quit working.  (The technical glitch was later corrected.)

Though a speak-only role, Loayza’s character El Duende is responsible for narrating the storyline and as such he is rarely out of sight.  He is a fine actor, capturing and holding the attention of the listener, and his vast experience as an actor was evident from the level of comfort in his manner of delivery.

This Syracuse Opera production relies heavily on visuals, and Anthony Salatino’s attractive choreography, along with Barry Steele’s shrewd video designs, forged a worthy complement to the music.

Salatino’s stylized dance numbers maintained the sense of dignity and nobility we associate with ballroom dancing.  (Among the capable cast of dancers, Luba Lesser stood prominently as the most poised.)  Serving as stage director as well as choreographer, Salatino squeezed the most out of the small Carrier Theater stage, with precious little room going to waste.  I enjoyed his touch of levity in Scene 12 (Aria de los analistas), where a trio of white-coated psychoanalysts muttering psychobabble prance about the stage in a doomed effort to analyze Maria.

Barry Steele’s video design, comprising projected images set against the backdrop of a mesh curtain, provided a clever and effective illusion of set and scenery that complemented the chairs and tables on stage.  Steele, who also handled the lighting in this production, achieved some intriguing effects projecting image reflections off the costumes of characters moving about the stage.

I can’t say I approve of the curious decision to use amplification of the singers in the chamber-like confines of the intimate Carrier Theater.  Such amplification in opera (widely considered taboo) was singularly unnecessary and distracted from the otherwise good quality of singing.  Moreover, watching characters trekking across the stage with microphones wrapped around their heads evokes the unwelcome image of Justin Bieber.

Beyond the confusing plot and curious use of amplification, almost everything else in this production clicked.  Piazzolla writing is immediately attractive and accessible to the listener, and though his music tends to rely on the same stock chord progressions, Piazzolla does have his moments of musical daring — such as an occasional use of counterpoint.  (Once you hear a fugue whose subject starts with bandoneón and answered by a guitar, it’s hard to return to the music of Bach.)

For my tastes, I find that Piazzolla’s best writing in this work comes in the instrumental numbers at the beginning of the work, including some saucy writing for the guitar (played superbly by Ken Meyer) as well as some dazzling opportunities for the bandoneón, played Friday by J.P. Jofre a specialist on this instrument imported from New York City (and who plays frequently alongside Latin jazz great, Paquito D’Rivera).

The bandoneón was the instrument favored by Piazzolla, and he was by all accounts a virtuoso on this colorful, ethnocentric instrument.  Throughout his life, Piazzolla squeezed lots of soul and passion from the instrument’s bellows and buttons.  And he might have squeezed as much from his tango operita, had there been a better story to guide the juice.

Details Box:
WhatMaria de Buenos Aires, a tango opera by Astor Piazzolla with a libretto by Horacio Ferrer
Language: Sung in Spanish, with projected English titles
Who: Syracuse Opera
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
: Carrier Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse, NY
Time of performance: Approximately 75 minutes, performed without intermission
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5; 8 p.m. Feb. 7; 2 p.m. Feb. 9
Tickets: $19 to $81
Contact: Box office, (315) 47-OPERA or http://syracuseopera.com
Family Guide:  Adult themes, but nothing objectionable

Copyright 2014, CNY Cafe Momus

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