As a production, Maria de Buenos Aires is ultimately flawed. For 70 minutes the audience watches the life of Maria, an unlucky Argentinian girl who is seduced by the pull of the tango and resorts to prostitution, in turn luring men to live a similar fate. Eventually this leads to her death, when her spirit is condemned to wander the streets of Buenos Aires until she is somehow restored and reborn. But plot holes aside, in all this time there is no room for the audience to understand Maria, empathise with or support her. Even Matthew Wade’s duende, a mythological goblin-like creature that narrates this sorry tale, describes Maria as being born “one day when God was drunk”, yet her death isn’t impactful, doesn’t pull at the heartstrings or evoke mournful cries from those around her. The parallels to La Santa MarÃa, even to Jesus himself, are evident in Horacio Ferrer’s libretto and the iconography scattered throughout Jemima Robinson’s set of blood red, black and white. There should be more to this production, a passion synonymous with the Argentinian nuevo tango style that Astor Piazzolla is renowned for creating, but this fusion does not have the heat that it demands.
The production is not without its successes, markedly found in Piazzolla’s compositional cauldron of musical dance styles. As a virtuoso bandoneonist (a relation to the accordion and substituted for such in this orchestra), Piazzolla effortlessly incorporates jazz and classical influences with more traditional tango composition. The result is an intense experience – pieces with highly charged emotional implications carefully balance the elements and transport each of the tableaux that make up this opera into something greater. Ricardo Gosalbo’s orchestra of jazz guitar, strings, tuned and untuned percussion are topped off with Bartosz Glowacki’s masterful accordion playing that serves as a fitting homage to the composer himself. Given that Piazzolla’s works are complex to say the least – entwining extensive counterpoint and rapidly bouncing between strongly percussive rhythms with off-beat, syncopated phrases – the orchestral performance is laudable. In this setting, the strength of the ensemble only serves to act against those on stage, whose performance, whilst proficient, does not match up to the skill shown by these instrumentalists.
Maria de Buenos Aires is an opera of three key elements, raised high by one and brought down somewhat by the others. As the title character, soprano Catarina Sereno is adept at fitting within Piazzolla’s ever-changing metre, her intentionally strong vibrato complementing the instrumental pitch bends and arresting but welcome dischords. Whilst Sereno delivers a controlled vocal, she is unable to provide the depth of sound required to emulate the passion and lust that a tango-inspired prostitute would be expected to conjure. There is not enough allure emanating from this particular succubus.
Likewise, fellow singer Ian Helm falls short, his baritone line lost at poignant moments amidst the din. In a setting such as the Arcola Theatre, its audience mere inches away from the performers, there should be no difficulty in opera singers piercing through all other audio. When heard, Helm is rich and emotive, a duet with lost lover Maria providing a rare opportunity to hear their equally well-matched voices. In softer moments, Helm portrays a man fallen for Maria’s charms, a shadow of himself brought down by her sheer prowess. There are just not enough soft moments in this tango opera to give him sufficient chance to stand out.
The final element (that of the dance) is arguably the most disappointing of all, only because as a self-confessed tango opera it has to meet the highest standards from the outset. Bianca Vrcan and Sacha El Masry bring a presence to the stage that the singers all too often fail to produce, but nothing of the fire and ferocity that has come to be expected of Argentinian dancers. The footwork, whilst precise and placed, lacks speed and flair, such that the opera approaches its climax without the necessary preparation to provide the reaction it desires.
Ferrer’s libretto is confusing, to say the least. Artistic language highly concentrated with imagery and allegory, it is small wonder that the dance, the music and the song have no clear direction and hence no concrete purpose. But Piazzolla’s rhythms drive relentlessly on and duende/narrator Wade prances about more and more feverishly, becoming less and less lucid. Natalie Katsou pointedly aims towards the final resurrection sequence, but without the most competent of performers to add interpretation to Piazzolla and Ferrer’s psychedelic offering, Maria de Buenos Aires is doomed not to rise to the heavens, but to fall back to earth with a bump. Not the ideal ending to an otherwise successful 10th anniversary Grimeborn festival.