Opera review: ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ by Long Beach Opera
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How much depth can you expect to find in a tango? As it turns out, there’s far more than you think. That revelation came during Long Beach Opera’s stunning new production of Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer’s “Maria de Buenos Aires,” which opened Sunday at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro.
Long Beach ventured “Maria” once before, in 2004, in a production directed by John Lloyd Davies. Davies’ approach was predictable: You hear the term “tango opera,” so you set the action in a low-down cabaret. Not much depth there, but a lot of clichés.
Long Beach Opera general director Andreas Mitisek jettisoned that version and set the piece during the 1976-83 “Dirty War” in Argentina, when an estimated 30,000 people were abducted, tortured, murdered or simply disappeared.
Mitisek boiled down Ferrer’s surrealistic text, combining characters to create three singing or speaking parts, a menacing silent figure, and using the Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre to take on various dancing and non-dancing roles. Did the music bear the weight of this story? Absolutely. The result is a 70-minute tour de force.
In so far as it can be parsed, the libretto tells the story of a woman “born on a day when God was drunk” who grows up to inspire both great love and hate, and who is eventually killed by thieves and pimps. She is the incarnation of tango itself, and her story traces the dance’s emergence from the bars and brothels of the Buenos Aires waterfront.
Mitisek, however, casts the narrative as a flashback of Maria’s now-old lover, observing her and his younger self in happier times, then reliving both of their arrests and her rape and torture by the secret police. He screams in protest and reaches out to comfort her, but the past is gone and Maria is dead. It’s one of a number of great theatrical moments in the production. The unity of conception is everywhere. Projected rows and columns of prisoner’s faces fill a scrim at the front of the stage, creating an enormous spreadsheet of terror. One by one, each face floats to the floor, a discarded petal. Outside, in the lobby, are posted published notices of Argentineans angrily or poignantly seeking their “disappeared” friends or relatives.
None of this would work if Mitisek, who conducted a nine-member ensemble, couldn’t find the expressive material in Piazzolla’s score. But find it he did. The tangos were lyric and passionate, but also eerie, menacing, pastoral, driving, comforting and full of anguish, often shifting mercurially from one mood to another. Quite frankly, Mitisek must be one of the premier interpreters of Piazzolla.
He was supported by a strong cast. Gregorio Luke was the powerful, tortured Older Payador, a spoken role. Soprano Peabody Southwell made an arresting Maria, passionate, sexy, vulnerable and tragic. Tenor Gregorio Gonzalez was her younger ardent, observant lover. Mark Bringelson was the menacing silent chief torturer.
The Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre danced credibly but perhaps made its biggest impact in handling Maria’s dead body as if reenacting the Deposition from the Cross.
Adam Flemming was the powerful video designer. Dan Weingarten lighted the set dramatically. Nick Ariondo was the accordionist.
Long Beach Opera has another hit on its hands.
— Chris Pasles
Long Beach Opera’s ‘Maria de Buenos Aires,’ Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. 6th St., San Pedro. 8 p.m. Saturday. $29 to $150. (562) 432-5934 or www.longbeachopera.org.