Chicago Opera Theater’s April 28 production of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires at the Harris Theater is a soul-wrenching ‘tango operita’ exploring the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the Argentinian military government’s “Dirty War” on its own citizens. Between 1976 and 1983, military juntas killed or imprisoned at least 30,000 Argentinians in an attempt to eradicate anyone who the government deemed subversive. Maria‘s tale unfolds through the memories of the old man El Duende as he recalls how his beloved Maria was captured, raped, and imprisoned during the state-sponsored reign of terror.
The performance’s outstanding cast immerses themselves into the spirit of the production for an unforgettable experience. Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell brings Maria to life with vocals in a register so low that they seem to emanate from the core of the earth. Baritone Gregorio Gonzáles wields passion and power as Maria’s lover, El Payador. Gregorio Luke delivers the lines of his spoken role as El Duende (Older Payador) with a lilting despair. The Luna Negra Dance Theater’s performers join the cast not only to dance the tango but also to serve as a silent Greek chorus physically echoing Maria’s emotions. Maria‘s adroit nine-person orchestra under the baton of Music Director Andreas Mitisek includes the virtuosic Peter Soave on Piazzolla’s signature instrument, the bandoneón.
COT’s production features a unique set design and a distinctive style of movement. The performance takes place behind a translucent screen onto which is projected historical video footage interspersed with images of El Duende’s memories. The performers move within the language of the tango – slow, gliding steps punctuated with sudden, staccato bursts. The haziness of the screen and the languid motions of the performers result in a dream-like atmosphere.
The tale begins with the screen displaying aforementioned historical footage, followed by a checkerboard of the Argentinian prisoners’ faces. The pictures peel away one at a time to reveal dancers interconnected in a writhing mound of bodies. A pair of arms reaches skyward, a woman emerges from the heap, and Maria is “born” according to Horacio Ferrer’s poetic libretto “on a day when God was drunk.” From the moment of her birth, the earthy Maria lives as metaphor for the country’s indomitable spirit.
Maria exists in the midst of a larger metaphor – the tango as life. Initially, the tango plays its familiar role as a dance of seduction when Maria meets Young Payador during a celebration in a dance club. Later, the music’s energy turns horrific as a soldier forces himself upon Maria to break her spirit. Eventually, the lively dance becomes an ironic soundtrack to prisoners in the jail as they jerk in pain.
COT presented its final performance of Maria on April 28; those who are interested in learning more about the opera may enjoy COT’s recommended recording of Maria de Buenos Aires from 1998 by Gidon Kremer.