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Chicago Opera Theater’s ‘María de Buenos Aires’ is a dark dance

By Elliot Mandel

The Luna Negra Dancers embody spirits of “the disappeared”, victims of the Dirty War.

Ástor Piazzolla’s music carries an inherent sadness that wavers between earthly lust and transcendent memory. It is constantly propelled by the unmistakable rhythmic power of his tango nuevo—the tango style he created and perfected—which infuses the destruction of the 20th Century with the romance and beauty of traditional dance.

His one-act “tango operita” María de Buenos Aires was his only venture into the world of staged theatrical production. María blends opera, ballet, and the words and music of Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer in the story of a prostitute who becomes seduced by the city and dance, and whose memory haunts her lover into old age. In the hands and mind of Chicago Opera Theater’s general director and conceptual wizard Andreas Mitisek, María is a dark brew of non-linear narrative set in the context of Argentina’s Dirty War, the period of state-sanctioned violence between 1976 and 1983. From the opening strains of the bandoneón during Saturday night’s performance at Harris Theater, the audience was plunged into this shadowy world of chaos and tragedy.

Perhaps the most striking element of COT’s María was not on the stage (yes, there was nudity), but in front of it. Mitisek and video designer Adam Flemming created a series of video and still imagery that was projected on the scrim throughout the show. The grainy black and white photography was most effective when used to evoke atmosphere, as during the opening montage of scenes from Buenos Aires, tango dancers, and war, though it was less effective when filling in plot narrative. Though displays of portraits of “the disappeared”—victims of the Dirty War—bordered on overuse, they added ghostly characters to the cast and underscored the real-life horrors depicted in the fictional story.

On stage, Piazzolla’s vocal writing emphasized the middle ranges of his tortured leads. Peabody Southwell lent her sultry mezzo to María, while Gregorio Gonzalez portrayed her impassioned lover, the young Payador, with strong characterization, if uneven tone. Ferrer’s spoken-word poetry was delivered by the older Payador—the internationally acclaimed speaker Gregorio Luke—in a performance that alluded to his character’s claustrophobic memory. The Luna Negra Dance Company’s seamless choreography added a touch of subtlety to the heady mix.

Ultimately, the music drove the show’s energy with strong solo performances from violinist Florentina Ramniceanu, cellist Mark Lekas, and flutist Mary Stolper. Peter Soave’s bandoneón let one imagine the composer himself in the pit. Never a company to shy away from risks, Chicago Opera Theater—with Mitisek firmly in command—put on a visually and aurally intoxicating production. María de Buenos Aires runs April 24, 26, and 28 at the Harris Theater.


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