As far as I know, María de Buenos Aires (1968), smoldering in a stunning, exhilarating production at Opera in the Heights, may be the first and only tango operetta.
Composed by the universally acknowledged “King of Tango,” Astos Piazzolla, and written by surrealist poet Horacio Ferrer, this “little opera” is in a class of its own. It basically tells the story of how classical tango morphed into new tango, through the tale of poor girl Maria, who travels to the big city, Buenos Aires, where she's mauled, pawed, and discarded. After she is killed in a bar fight she's resurrected through the memory of those who knew her. Her black camisole is transformed into a gleaming white gown á la greque, and she's adorned, enhaloed really, with a crown of light rays á la Mary. Religious iconography and the gritty realities of a prostitute's life collide under Ferrer's deep-dish poetry that is, at once, graphic, silly, and thoroughly symbolic. It's a libretto like you've never experienced before.
But the words, although flying into the messianic ether as if drugged, are really the structure for Piazzolla's endlessly varied tangos. Sex is a given in Argentina's tango, with women flicking out their legs or embracing their partner's thighs with calculated abandon, as her partner holds her tight or dips her seductively toward the floor. The bodies stay close, sometimes with heads locked at the forehead. It's controlled libido, that's for sure.
And Piazzolla reinvents the rhythm, plays with it, varies it with surprising orchestration for chamber orchestra. There's the ubiquitous bandoneón, of course, the Argentinian accordion (the ur-sound of tango), here caressed by master musician JP Jofre, who is reason enough to hear this show; paired with piano, jazz bass, violin, viola, cello, xylophone, flute, and percussion. During one number, violinist Dominika Dancewitz, turned and slapped the piano's side with her hand. There's plenty of emotion in Piazzolla, plenty of nostalgia and melancholy, but also plenty of discovery, fun, and unbridled passion as he plays with themes and variations. It's masterful. Ferrer's dubious and hyper-rich poetry is but a skeleton on which the master composer drapes his beautiful melodies.
As this is an operetta, there's a lot of spoken dialogue. The narrator, called El Duende (bass-baritone Blas Canedo Gonzalez) carries most of this, but his rich voice has one of the work's most fragrant arias, the “Romanza,” where he pines for Maria's lost shadow of herself – haunting and erotic simultaneously. The man Maria loves and loses, El Payador, is embodied by baritone Octavio Moreno, renowned for his Laurentino in Cruzar la cara de la luna, the mariachi opera by José “Pepe” Martínez and Leonard Foglia, that debuted at Houston Grand Opera in 2010. Unlike his previous earthy patriarch, here, Moreno is oily and dangerous, eager to abuse and abandon Maria. He's one bad hombre.
But the night belonged to mezzo Sishel Claverie, as Marie, the soul of tango, whose passion destroys her then brings her back to life. The last time I saw her, she was a fiery Carmen in OH's remash of Bizet's classic, The Tragedy of Carmen. “Feisty and free, she's no man's possession. Enter at your own risk. In a lovely touch, she rolls a cigar on her bare thigh. Claverie's voice is smoky and seductive, too. Stand back, or get burned. No one can touch her.” All that still applies, for she's a force of nature, with a volcano-deep voice, a stage presence that bursts past the footlights, and silky seductive charm. She overlays distraught Maria with dignity and the forbearance of a saint. Funny that, as at the end, she literally becomes the Virgin Mary, blessing her working girls in a shaft of white light. She's become chaste again. She, too, has one of Piazzolla's most lovely arias, “Carta a los árboles y las chimeneas,” (“Letter to the trees and chimneys”) where she remembers the happy time of her unsullied youth.
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The entire production sizzles, with its quartet of tango dancers from Luna Tango Productions (Susana Collins, Gonzalo Andre, Carmen Miranda, Sosheel Saleen), the lively yet intimate design from director Grant Presser (blood-red back curtain and string of patio lights), and lighting designer Jim Elliot's vivid coloring.
The classic tango smolders, its two dancers about to burst into flame. María de Buenos Aires combusts in all the right ways. Piazzolla sees to that. So does the impeccable Jofre on bandoneón; maestro Eiki Isomura, who seems to have lived another life in Argentina for the love and passion he imbues into the score and Claverie, who takes tango to a spiritual level, yet never lets us forget where it came from.
Olé! to Opera in the Heights.
María de Buenos Aires continues through February 23. At 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights.org. $40.50-$94.50.