Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera’s production of the Argentine tango opera, María de Buenos Aires by the musical innovator Astor Piazzolla with lyrics by Horacio Ferrer, is a courageous act. Laudable is the FWO’s long-standing effort to introduce Spanish-language pieces to its audiences. Director-choreographer John De Los Santos presents a hearty and rich rendition of this piece, but not without some unfortunate technical flaws.
Rich, sultry, and fulfilling are the voices of Argentinean mezzo-soprano Solange Merdinian in the title role of María and Texas native and baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco as El Payador. Gaby Natale, an Argentinian-Italian-American journalist, speaks as the narrator, El Duende, a goblin-like figure who is out to foil María. They, alongside the entire cast, which includes three dancers from Texas Ballet Theater (Alex Danna, Riley Moyano and Paige Nyman), bring forth a full and convincing performance telling a story that is, at best, difficult to follow.
Why difficult? While the entire piece is presented in one act with no intermission, the plot can be divided into two parts. The first tells a rather compact version of María’s fall from grace. Once seduced by the city of Buenos Aires, she takes to the life of an arrabalera, a tango woman of the night. The second part begins once she is killed on the streets. She then becomes a pregnant, shadowy incarnation of herself in an afterlife that is still bound by earthly desires and memories. It is Horacio Ferrer’s abstract, surreal language and the plot structure that challenges. The metaphors follow an early 20th-century poetic bend in the style of Surrealism’s stream-of-consciousness flow. Imagine a lyrical version of a Salvador Dalí painting and try to make logical sense of that.
The orchestra, led by Scott Terrell of the Lexington Philharmonic, is seated on stage, an appropriate approach that complements the close relationship between the tango music, the plot, and the dancing, all of which combine to tell this tragic yet hopeful story. Piazzolla’s music, rejected as an abomination to the traditional tango in its time, by now has become quite familiar to the tango world to classical audiences (Yo-Yo Ma’s rendition of “Libertango” is now a classic), to Broadway lovers (Forever Tango has been touring for 20 years with various casts), and in film (The Scent of a Woman, Tango, The Tango Lesson).
At a traditional milonga (a tango dance gathering) Piazzolla’s music is not played, since it is considered music for listening. However, large-scale tango-for-export shows have incorporated it since the 1970s with the innovative styles of choreographer/dancer Juan Carlos Copes and María Nieves, the first to introduce musical tango shows to the outside world.
Piazzolla’s music accompanies storytelling well, in parts incorporating sweeping violin parts that recall the golden era of Hollywood musicals. While the bandoneón (played by Juan Pablo Jofre) is imperative in tango, in this particular piece, it does not dominate.
On opening night, the music was evenly paced, and seemed more of an accompaniment to the singing, which provided the emotional highs and lows. In this case, the music takes back seat to the singing, a position not common for tango. The dancing also took a backseat to the singing−but this is billed as an opera, first and foremost. One cannot discuss tango as a traditional dance form in a performance that is primarily a ballet. The dancers demonstrated the basic vocabulary of the tango (boleos and ganchos mostly) with very well-executed aerial lifts, and convincing acting. I can only imagine how much stronger emotionally it would have been to have professional tango dancers on stage.
The FWO employed several elements from the San Diego Opera: the costumes, scenic design, and the translation from the Spanish to English (by María C. Martínez and Claudio Luchina). There are three tall, wall-like structures that rotate on casters (wheels) that provide the urban ambiance, first of the port town of La Boca, an early 20th century entry port for largely Italian immigrants, and a place where both prostitution and tango flourished. Today La Boca is not only famous for its world-renowned soccer team Boca Juniors (home to Diego Maradona), but for its multi-colored, tin structures constructed in the conventillo style (a slumlike multi-family urban dwelling). Nowadays, it is also a daytime tourist attraction that glorifies the early days of tango today known as El Caminito (“the little path”), a place where tourists are warned not to linger past 6 p.m. due to its crime rate.
Other visual references are anchored in Buenos Aires’ center, a magnificent metropolitan city that boasts the first subway in the Americas (yes, before that of New York City). A landmark here is the famous cemetery in Recoleta, an affluent neighborhood and the polar opposite of La Boca. The large angels are paradigmatic of this burial ground to the famous. While they work as visual references for those who know the city, there is an incongruence in terms of the place where a woman like María might end up.
While the transference of costumes and set from the San Diego Opera production work, there were issues with some of the representational choices of this production, the first of which was to simultaneously project both the Spanish and the English on supertitles. At one point on opening night, the supertitles froze for several minutes, leaving the audience at a loss. This is an unfortunate event in an abstract piece that depends upon narrative guidance. Also unfortunate were several microphone mishaps with El Duende and the chorus, and often the Spanish supertitles did not match what was being said in Spanish (particularly by El Duende). More confusing was the relevance to the plot of the scene with the three (blind?) nuns. This point of confusion was shared by several spectators whom I overheard after the performance.
I question the need to overwhelm the spectator with two supertitle projections. Why project Spanish and English when English is enough, particularly when the Spanish often did not match what was being articulated on stage? Audiences are better served by being allowed to emotionally, aurally and visually connect with this rich production rather than being confused with competing super titles.
All in all, one would expect a higher level of polish from a production at Bass Hall. While the kudos stand in regard for the FWO’s inclusion of Spanish-language operas, more attention to details will render a more congruent and enjoyable experience to both Spanish and English-speaking audiences.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theatre in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and an advisory board member of the Latinx Theatre Commons. She is a native Spanish speaker and an avid Argentine tango dancer who has travelled dozens of times to Buenos Aires since 2005.