Chicago Opera Theater continues its new “more of the different” mission in dramatic form under general director Andreas Mitisek with the much-belated Chicago première of Astor Piazzolla’s 1967-68 “tango operita” Maria de Buenos Aries, which received an enthusiastic ovation at its Saturday night opening at the Harris Theater.
Perhaps because it was long linked to dance more than opera -- as recently as last month it was presented in New York at the new music basement nightclub (le) poisson rouge -- this continuous 75-minute work, conceived and developed in Buenos Aires and neighboring Uruguay by Piazzolla with the poet Horacio Ferrer, somehow has eluded Chicago stages despite a long vogue for the composer’s “nuevo tango” style since at least the late 1970s.
Piazzolla himself made his Chicago debut on bandoneón -- the concertina-like instrument at the heart of the tango -- at the Park West in 1989, a year before a debilitating stroke in 1990 that led to his death at 71 in 1992. Classical champions of his works, which musically extend the traditional popular dance and song form, have included the Kronos Quartet and violinist Gidon Kremer. And Piazzolla’s fellow native Argentinian Daniel Barenboim, while music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, had an international hit CD of trios in 1996 including a number of the composer-performer’s “new tangos.”
For Maria’s local launch, Mitisek has brought a reconceived staging that was a success at his Long Beach Opera in January of 2012. Without changing music or Spanish-dialect lyrics, Mitisek took Ferrer’s magical realism story -- with its heavy, often overly symbolic language -- and shifted it from the 1930s and 1940s Buenos Aires demi-monde of prostitutes, pimps and tango clubs to the period of Argentina’s brutal “Dirty War” of 1976-1983, when a military junta turned on its own citizens.
At least 13,000 Argentinians from all walks of life were “disappeared” by the military -- some say as many as 30,000 -- in a campaign of kidnapping, torture, murder, and both child abduction and infant abduction from the wombs of “disappeared” women. The election of Pope Francis, former archbishop of Buenos Aires and a leading Jesuit there during the period, has called coincidental attention to this dark and still not wholly addressed era.
The new setting is delivered dramatically with multimedia visuals and full use of the large stage and proscenium at the Harris. Mitisek, who also conducts and designed the production, enlisted highly capable video (Adam Flemming) and lighting (Dan Weingarten) artists from his Long Beach team, and the visual effects are powerful, from a vanishing “wall” of the individual “disappeared” to cages of real and metaphorical hells. A non-speaking actor, Mark Bringelson, is chilling as an officer who leads a silent squad of government rapists and torturers.
How does this work with an at least overtly apolitical story of a young woman “born on a day when God was drunk” with “three nails in her throat” who embodies, through prostitution and broken hearts, the lowlife existence of the tango world, dies for it, and through rebirth, somehow redeems it? Not at all as far as I could tell. But the performances are so powerful and the music so well-executed (and, frankly, Ferrer’s writing is so often over-the-top and almost at a Mad Libs level of imagery; the original staging even had a chorus of psychoanalysts!) that it’s best just to give yourself over to both sides of the presentation.
The strong cast also carries over from Long Beach (and all are acceptably amplified). Young California contralto Peabody Southwell is Maria in spirit, body and deep, dark voice. Mexican-American baritone Gregorio Gonzalez uses his spectacular voice to offer all shades of Maria’s lover/husband/widower. Lecturer-actor Gregorio Luke of Mexico City is a strong presence in the speaking role of the older, recollecting lover. Eight dancers from Chicago’s Luna Negra Dance Theater, choreographed by their Spanish artistic director Gustavo Ramirez Sansano, move atmospherically behind a scrim.
The bravura nine-member ensemble of strings, flute, piano, and percussion is highlighted as it should be by the bandoneon, here in the hands of Italian-American virtuoso Pietro (Peter) Soave. Mitisek and all of the players keep the tight line of the various tango, milonga. and waltz settings at all times, but it is the growling, tunefulness and even crying of the bandoneon that moves and even tells the story. A shame that Soave was not given a curtain call.
Maria’s 14 varied musical sections never really knit fully into a theatrical work -- like a blues, a brief tango, by its nature, tells a whole story -- and Piazzolla never created another full stage piece, but this is a strong if at times perplexing creation.