June 10, 2018
Sex and death make an enticing pair in Alamo City Opera’s first-class staging of Astor Piazzolla’s surreal tango opera, María de Buenos Aires. It opened June 9 – for only a two-day run, alas – in the intimate Buena Vista Building theater at UTSA Downtown.
Piazzolla, an Argentine native who spent most of his childhood in New York, is credited with expanding the range of traditional Argentine tango music with modernist classical and jazz influences. (Back in Argentina in his early 20s, he studied with Alberto Ginastera, that country’s most important classical composer, while also playing bandoneon, a type of concertina, in a tango orchestra.)
María de Buenos Aires, a collaboration with the poet Horacio Ferrer, had its premiere in Buenos Aires in 1968. It didn’t reach the United States until 1991, when Houston Grand Opera staged it in the Miller Outdoor Theater. That very large venue – 1,700 seats in the pavilion, plus room for thousands more on the grounds – was far from ideal for this chamber-scaled work. Moreover, it was a little hard to assimilate the not-quite-opera form: One of its three main roles is a speaking part, closely coordinated with the orchestral score, that carries much of the weight of the plot; the story is told, through Ferrer’s richly allusive poetry, more than it is enacted. Dance is a prominent and essential part of the mix.
The Buena Vista Building theater proved a perfect size for this show – small enough to give the audience an immersive experience, but with a large enough stage to accommodate the the orchestra of 11 (stage left) and the playing space (right and center) without seeming cramped. As for the work’s form, that seems considerably less odd nowadays, after a few decades of experimentation in contemporary opera.
Piazzolla’s music for María was a success from the beginning. Although the prevailing idiom is tango, the music covers a wide range of attitudes and colorations. Both of the principal singing roles are given splendid showcases.
All the principals were terrific on opening night. The charismatic Colombian soprano Catalina Cuervo pretty much owns the title role of the prostitute who is murdered and then reappears as a shadow who gives birth to … herself. Ms. Cuervo’s instrument is not unusually beautiful in the conventional sense, but it is capable of a wide range of vocal colors, including a wonderfully husky low register. In both voice and movement, this was an intense, magnetic performance. And she looked the part, too.
The other principal singing role, the “Payador,” or competitive composer and singer of verses, was superbly filled by José Rubio, a powerful and rock-steady baritone whose voice might be described as honey with a kick.
The speaking role is designated “El Duende,” or goblin. It was performed with extraordinary grace by the Colombian baritone Blas Canedo-González, who previously appeared with this company last year in the title role in Daniel Catán’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. I described him then as the show’s “most persuasive singing actor, projecting a strong, secure, bright instrument and negotiating the Spanish diction with a fluid, musical sense of rhythm.” He brought the same qualities to his speaking role in María. I am not a Spanish speaker, but Mr. Canedo-Gonzåalez’s delivery of Ferrer’s poetry was so deeply musical, so flat-out beautiful, that after a while I found myself wallowing in the sheer sensuality of that sound and not bothering to look at the projected English translations.
The tangos were stunningly danced by the Dallas-based team of Jairebhi and George Furlong. Their moves were tango all the way, but executed with a fluidity and elegance that suggested a classical ballet background.
The chorus of six young singers from this region suffered from loose ensemble at times.
All the singers were wearing microphones. Amplification was slight in most cases, but a little too apparent for Mr. Rubio, who clearly needed no help to be heard.
The bandoneon master David Alsina brought authentic style to the excellent orchestra (nicely conducted by Kristin Roach), and he was a responsive partner to the singers.
Stage director Sara Erde, a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s directing staff, struck a good balance of naturalistic and ritualistic movements. The simple but effective set, credited to Sarasota Ballet, comprised a bar, a few tables and chairs, and a backdrop of stylized jalousies with missing pieces to suggest decay. Rose Kennedy of San Antonio designed the costumes, including several slinky gowns for María.
Alamo City Opera, formed six years ago as Opera Piccola, is turning into a creditable company whose sojourns into contemporary chamber opera are a welcome complement to Opera San Antonio’s big-stage productions of standard repertoire. Two productions scheduled for the forthcoming ACO season look especially provocative – Laura Kaminsky’s As One, the story of a transgender woman; and David T. Little’s Soldier Songs, a multimedia exploration of the realities of war, to be performed here by bass-baritone Timothy Jones. Mike Greenberg
Catalina Cuervo as María, Blas Canedo-Gonzalez as El Duende, José Rubio (rear) as El Payador.
Photo: Wayne Woodard
A tangoed web
Alamo City Opera: María de Buenos Aires, by Astor Piazzolla