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“Maria de Buenos Aires” | A Sultry, Sensual, and Surreal Spectacle

The Two Gay Geeks have an unusual treat for you with this article in that we are both contributing our own commentary on the Arizona Opera Season Opener, Maria de Buenos Aires, written by Astor Piazzola and lyrics by Horacio Ferrer.

John de los Santo is the director and Scott Terrell is conducting.

Joseph Specter is President and General Director for Arizona Opera and has worked hard to bring opera to the community and the community to opera in Arizona.

This production is part of the McDougal Arizona Opera Red Series and performed at the Herberger Theater Center Stage. It is an intimate venue for the productions to be presented as part of the Red Series.

Performances are all but sold out for this exciting piece.

 

Maria de Buenos Aires

Ben’s Thoughts

Arizona Opera gave us something truly unique tonight. We all have our pre-conceived notions of what opera is. We picture lyrical triumphs such as La Traviata or La Bohéme, or sometimes we expect something truly grand such as Wagner’s triumphant “Ring” cycle, or the grandest of them all being Verdi’s Aida. However, just to make a statement Arizona Opera decided to go just a bit more intimate, and they did so with Maria de Buenos Aires.

With music by Astor Piazzolla, and libretto by Horacio Ferrer, Maria feels more like a theater piece. It was written for the “common” people instead of high society, and uses tango music to help tell its story. It essentially deals with a goblin character, named El Duende, whose desire is to capture souls. After fating two people to have a child named Maria, the goblin desires for her to have a child of her own so that he can take it. That is the story in a nutshell. To go any further would be useless because the libretto reads more like poetry than actual dialogue that advances the plot of the opera. No, this is a piece of folk art and should be treated as such. While the surtitles do provide some level of translation, they pale in comparison to what is happening on the stage. All one needs to know is the gist of the story, and then sit back and watch the performances because that’s where this piece truly shines.

There are essentially three principles in this piece. First there is Maria, and she was magnificently sung by Catalina Cuervo. While she is Colombian, she understands the pure passion of the tango from Buenos Aires and performs her part with over the top gusto. However, when the moments call for an exposure of vulnerability she beautifully drops into her “chest voice” and sings with a quite sultriness that is both sexy and tender. This is a difficult part to sing because the role is typically sung by a mezzo-soprano, and the part of Maria would almost be classified as that of an alto, but the voice quality would have been all wrong for a piece such as this, therefore it was necessary to cast a mezzo in the role. To spare her the possibility of damaging her voice she was given a wire mic to help her project in the theater. As for her acting, she demonstrated the wild passionate swings that are typified in tango and gave everyone a performance that had the audience go wild.

Counter to that is the character of Payador, who could best be described as Maria’s “suitor,” and he was beautifully sung by Luis Alejandro Orozco. He had an amazing stage presence due to a combination of his height and phenomenal looks. He had one scene that was shirtless, which left many people in the audience breathing rather heavily. Then again, this is a tango and it’s all about the passion! However Orozco’s good looks isn’t all he has going for him, as he also possesses a lovely baritone voice. Unfortunately the opera doesn’t call him to do as much singing as Maria, but the moments where he sang were greatly appreciated by all in attendance.

Lastly there is Celeste Lanuza as El Duende. To really shake things up Arizona Opera chose to cast a woman in this part. The role of El Duende is normally identified as male, but this time they went with Lanuza and continually changed her clothing, suggesting that El Duende was a shape-shifting trickster, giving the character a slightly more malevolent feel. El Duende is also a speaking role and has no singing in the piece, so this calls for more of a traditional theater stage acting style, and Lanuza owned it! Every time she was on stage all eyes would end up on her. It didn’t matter how she was dressed, which gender the character was supposed to be, or even what was being said. Lanuza performed it with a conviction that at times left the audience in total suspense, and at other times giggling at the deliberately humorous approach.

To tackle this production Arizona Opera went with John De Los Santos (we interviewed him most recently for TG Geeks Episode #188 in regards to this opera). Brilliant doesn’t even begin to cover it. He has managed to find a way to take a story, and do more than just give it a fresh coat of paint. He has a remarkable talent for being able to re-envision a work while still keeping its original spirit alive. It also helps that he served as choreographer for this opera and he delivered, just at the right times, some of the juiciest tango dancing from twin dancers Laurence and Lester Gonzales. The tango has been known to have two men dance together, and the Gonzalez brothers had the perfect chemistry. They complimented each other equally, and they most certainly delivered when the dancing called for it to be steamy. Lastly I must mention the performance of the specially hired musicians. To give this the right flavor, Arizona Opera hired an amazing virtuoso with the guitar, named Colin Davin. The music of South America would be empty without a guitar, and Davin performed in such a manner that he left me feeling jealous of his ability! Then there is the Bandoneon (sort of a precursor to the accordion) and that was played by Hector del Curto, a man who is considered a leading expert with the instrument. It was a joy that Arizona Opera was able to get him because he truly is one of the most sought after bandoneonists.

Maria de Buenos Aires represents what art is supposed to do. It should inspire, generate conversation, and most of all, leave you a changed person after having watched it. If this first work for Arizona Opera is any indication as to what the rest of the season holds in store, then this company might need to be reevaluated and have its standing with other regional opera companies raised for Maria de Buenos Aires was a pure artistic triumph.

Photos courtesy Arizona Opera and Tim Trumble.
 

Keith’s Thoughts

The Two Gay Geeks were in attendance at the season opener for Arizona Opera on Friday evening. That opera was Astor Piazzola’s Tango Opera “Maria de Buenos Aires” written in 1968.

Maria de Buenos Aires is a surreal look at life on the streets of Buenos Aires in the years leading up to the Dirty War. The poetry of Horacio Ferrer adds to the surreal element of the opera.

 

John de los Santos took the piece and made it his own with the staging and an alternate translation of the poetry to bring it to life. In his own words John expressed a feeling that this piece really was a triumph for Maria rather than being a tragedy. With that in mind he made El Duende a female character rather than the traditional male since Maria was already being mis-handled (his word) by every man she met. This sets up two female characters one evil (El Duende) and the other good(ish) in Maria. Making this opera about good versus evil, if you will.

The three principles for this production were absolutely perfect and stunning.

Catalina Cuervo has the distinction of having performed the role of Maria more than 50 times and it shows in her performance, she is poised, polished, and perfect. And her voice is rather sultry and warm creating that certain vibe that Maria needs.

Celeste Lanuza as El Duende was absolutely amazing. She has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 costume changes to fit the action and poetry of the character. She has a speaking role but her delivery is very rhythmic. There is a dash of humor which added at the right moment gives the tension breaker you need in the stark world that Maria lives.

Luis Alejandro Orozco as the Payador (folk singer) and you could say Maria’s champion is a delight to hear. His voice is rich and bold as he sings of Maria. His journey through this piece is an interesting one as he searches for Maria.

The music that Piazzola created features a Bandoneon that is something like a cross between an accordion and a concertina (squeeze box). The Bandoneon, piano, guitar, percussion, flute, and a few stringed instruments are all that inhabit the pit. The sound that this ensemble produce is the perfect blend of folk and classic. Piazzola wrote this primarily as a tango piece which features prominently in the score, but there is also a little jazz, some pop (of the time), and even a classical fugue plunked down in the middle. There is an underlying theme (I would say Maria’s theme) that plays through all of the forms and the entire 90 minutes. I found the music to be toe tapping and with the addition of the fabulous scenery and performances an absolute delight to watch. Maestro Scott Terrrell was able to coax every nuance out of the singers and musicians to help the audience to inhabit the streets of Buenos Aires and feel the rawness and angst that filled these peoples lives.

Check out the program before the opera starts as John de los Santos has given a good synopsis of the multiple vignettes to be performed.
 
The Red Party

As part of the opening festivities Arizona Opera threw a party they called “The Red Party” after the performance. There were snacks and beverages and even a Tango demonstration.
Below are some photos form that party:

 
About Arizona Opera

Arizona Opera, originally the Tucson Opera Company, was founded in 1971 by a dedicated group of opera enthusiasts. Its inaugural season featured two performances of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in Tucson and by the 1976 – 1977 season Arizona Opera was performing complete seasons in both Tucson and Phoenix.

Since its inaugural year, Arizona Opera has produced over 170 fully-staged operas and concerts. The company’s artistic history is rich with a blend of opera’s traditional repertoire featuring baroque, bel canto, and verismo works, turn-of-the-century masterpieces, operettas, and American operas. Arizona Opera has also presented Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle twice, a feat that has only been accomplished in North America by four other companies.

Arizona Opera Website
Facebook Link
Twitter @AZOpera


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