PARIS AND THE MUSIC of Astor Piazzolla rendezvoused on February 4 at Atlanta’s Maison Rouge for the tango operita Maria de Buenos Aires. It was the latest offering in the Atlanta Opera’s Discoveries Series, general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun’s initiative to take the opera out of the opera house and explore more adventurous repertoire.
Maison Rouge is a shabby, slightly repulsive, venue that hosts wedding receptions as well as burlesque shows; it’s adorned with velvet, manikin body parts and mismatched light fixtures fitted with red light bulbs. When paired with the earthy tango music of Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer’s incoherent poetry, Maison Rouge was just seedy enough to transport the audience to the slums of Buenos Aires.
Operita (little opera) is an apt description for Piazzolla’s musical play that premiered at Sala Planeta in 1968—there’s only a little in the way of operatic singing that occurs during the eighty-minute opus. Maria gathers just two principal characters in addition to the title role: El Duende (Milton Loayza)—translated as “the troll”, he is actually an omniscient narrator who proclaims, rather than sings—and El Payador, Maria’s sympathetic lover. Luis Orozco sang the role of El Payador and possesses a youthful, but promising timbre that couldn’t be fully appreciated within the limited scope of Piazzolla’s vocal writing.
Maria de Buenos Aires is not plot-driven, but consists of fifteen numbers that loosely portray the tragic life of Maria, a courtesan who is seemingly the personification of the tango. Bathed in the plaintive organ sounds of a bandoneón, the audience is subjected to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, a dream-like alchemy of jazz elements, chromaticism, and Argentina’s urban song.
Jorge Parodi conducted an intimate ensemble featuring bandoneón player Daniel Binelli, a friend and colleague of the late composer. And Zvulun directed the production, integrating a pair of tango dancers, Mariela Barufaldi and Jeremias Massera from Miami’s Tango Axis. The suggestive choreography of the tango, highlighted throughout, infused the Atlanta Opera’s production with an undeniable authenticity.
Just as Maria is killed on the bar top of Maison Rouge and later resurrected in the play, Piazzolla’s work has undergone a resurgence in Chicago, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. Columbian soprano Catalina Cuervo, now the foremost interpreter of Maria, sang this night in a chesty blend of quasi-recitative and belting. Cuervo seemed to embody Maria, erotic and lush sounding, even in the extreme low reaches of her range.
Maria de Buenos is not an opera per se; it’s Piazzolla’s attempt to add yet another layer— the human voice—to the sensuous tango of his native Argentina. Perplexing, engaging, and abstract, Maria is more than a woman, or even the personification of the tango. She is an instrument. —Stephanie Adrian