The Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla's 1968 “tango opera” Maria de Buenos Aires is the story of a street angel who finds love, only to be torn from it, leading to a spiral culminating in her destruction. In the new production of the work staged by the Chicago Opera Theater, the setting has been transferred to Argentina's “Dirty War”, the period during the rule of the military junta from 1976-1983, which saw a period of brutal repression and violence waged against dissenters, who became known as desparacidos, or people who had “been disappeared” by the regime. Possibly 30,000 people, mostly young men and women, were disappeared by the military, victims of brutal torture and ultimately, murder. In the COT's re-conception of the opera, Maria (mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) is still an angelic prostitute, but she meets her soulmate in the form of the resistance leader known as El Payador (baritone Gregorio Gonzales) through the heated passion of-what else?-the tango.
The staging of the opera was conceived by the COT's artistic director and usual conductor, Andreas Mitisek. It's understandable why Mitisek would want to want to move the opera to the period of the military junta; it makes the characters more human and it gives the metaphysical opera more of a grounding in reality. The opera is seen as the slightly hazy reminiscence of the older Payador, a spoken role performed by Gregorio Luke, which connects the poetic nostalgia with the gritty reality of the life of the characters. The opera's chief attraction is the score by Piazzolla, which contains within it a wide range of emotions, from lust to sorrow to desperation, that manifest themselves in the rhythms of the tango. The libretto, which was written by poet Horacio Ferrer, was at times absurd, and the lyrics of the songs (granted, in translation) seemed like a parody of musical theater, which they clearly are not intended to be. At other times, certain lines of dialogue capture the melancholy of the situation perfectly; it was as if his poetry contained genius buried within mediocrity.
Visually, the results are mixed. The sets are striking, particularly the prison cells from which Maria and El Payador communicate with one another, and from which Maria is taken after her death, borne by bearers and intended to evoke the removal of Christ from the cross. The entire opera takes place behind a screen, which has been strategically placed in order to have video images projected on to it; they include images of women walking the streets and people dancing the tango, as well as (dramatized?) images from the Dirty War of military officals apprehending citizens in the street, as well as taking them to dark, abandoned places to torture them. We see the images of the desparacidos projected on the screen; their numerous faces slowly fill the screen, but at the same time, we're supposed to be following the opera, which is going on behind the screen, sometimes while the older Payador is speaking, or the characters are singing. Mitisek apparently doesn't realize that our eyes can't be in two or three places at once, so the different aspects of the opera can't all register.
The cast, though small, has no weak links. Peabody Southwell's Maria was a compelling, even courageous performance (she has to degrade herself by offering herself to military men, and she's the victim of a simulated gang rape;) she captured the character's passionate, angelic nature. As her man, Gregorio Gonzales possessed a strong baritone, with a remarkable top range; he could even be a tenor. The two gave off sparks when they were together, giving the opera a serious erotic charge, which transcended the sometimes ludicrous tango numbers, which seemed coreographed to drain all the passion out of them. Gregorio Luke was also quite effective in the spoken role of the narrator; he's a broken man, and we share his sorrow as he laments the fall of his angel.
Astor Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos Aires will be performed by the Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris Theater at Millenium Park, 205 E Randolph Dr, April 24, 26, and 28.
photo credits: Liz Lauren