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Tango opera ‘Maria’ casts magical spell

By Janelle Gelfand
July 28, 2012

A tango opera – or “tango operita,” as Horacio Ferrer and Astor Piazzolla called “Maria de Buenos Aires” – is a unique hybrid of seductive dance and operatic storytelling. In the case of Cincinnati Opera’s production of “Maria de Buenos Aires” in Music Hall’s Ballroom on Wednesday, it also made the audience part of the action.


For a night, we were under the spell of the tango, and the ballroom became the tango artists’ cabaret. In Jose Maria Condemi’s staging, the action surrounded the audience of 450, including patrons at small cabaret tables. As the performers tangoed, sang and acted out the drama, they moved (and sometimes leapt) between a spare set consisting of three raised platforms, strategically placed around the performance space. Actors leaned provocatively on the ballroom’s bar, blowing invisible plumes of smoke.


Ferrer’s text is surreal, reminiscent of “magical realism,” which blends magical elements with the real world. Maria – gloriously performed by soprano Catalina Cuervo – is a woman who was “born on a day when God was drunk.” Her story travels through the brothels and bars of Buenos Aires, both in reality and in the afterlife. She is raped, killed by thieves and gives birth in the end – almost as a kind of resurrection. Maria is, in fact, a metaphor for the tango itself, reborn out of seedy beginnings.


The creators’ aim was to capture the seamy “underworld” of tango, which flourished in Argentinean dives and bars by those who practiced the art with obsession. This production’s immediacy made the drama all the more riveting. It was sung and spoken in Spanish. Still, despite a small “chorus” which spoke in English, it would have helped the audience to have a few more clues in English.


I’m not sure there could have been a more perfect Maria than that portrayed by the Colombian-born Cuervo, who exuded both voluptuousness and vulnerability in the role. But even more memorable was the way she tackled the low register of Piazzolla’s songs, effortlessly projecting both sultry vocal allure and beautiful line. Her “Yo soy Maria” (I am Maria), sung on a tabletop, positively smoldered.


Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, sang with emotion and added a gentle aura that caught the sadness of Maria’s tale. And with arresting charisma, Jairo Cuesta, El Duende (goblin or spirit), powerfully narrated the Spanish-language texts. A pair of sensational tango dancers, Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, echoed the story’s passion in fiery, intensely dramatic displays.


Best of all was hearing Piazzolla’s haunting and wonderfully inventive score through the 70-minute work. Cincinnati Opera collaborated with the forward-looking group Concert:Nova, which provided a colorful ensemble led by Edwin Outwater, director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario. The players included an Indiana University violinist who specializes in tango, Daniel Stein, virtuoso bandoneon player from Argentina, Ben Bogart, and guitarist Richard Goering.


The librettist Ferrer wrote in his notes for Gidon Kremer’s excellent recording of this work, that he suggested Piazzolla weave together several types of tango – tradition, romance, song – as well as milonga, waltzes and folk tunes of the pampas. There was even a fugue. The players’ hypnotic musical canvas cast a spell that lasted long after the last notes faded. Tonight’s performance of “Maria de Buenos Aires” is sold out.