There is dark history in Latin America with “cleansings” and “disappearances” that took place to remove political opposition. Argentina unfortunately experienced this in the 20th century. In Argentina, there was also the exploitation of women. So it makes perfect sense that Astor Piazzolla would use the rich, exoticism of the tango as the foundation for telling a story that depicts this time period. Piazzolla only wrote one opera, Maria de Buenos Aires, but it includes his signature sound juxtaposed over the poetic, sensual and sinister story written by Horacio Ferrer.
The Chicago Opera Theater magically brought this story to life in 21st Century fashion with its own juxtaposition by having the entire performance take place behind a silk screen as black and white footage of Argentinean life was strategically used throughout the performance. But the trick to performing Maria de Buenos Aires falls firmly on the bandoneon player, the instrument that oozes the sensuality of the tango, as the part weaves scenes together with sustained, pain-filled notes.
Born from the bordellos, or ghetto of Buenos Aires, the tango combines love, eroticism, lyricism, and agony. It’s impossible to have a tango opera without dance; they are both so intricately connected. And the Luna Negra Dancers joined the Chicago Opera Theater and played a pivotal role.
To open the opera, footage sets the mood with scenes of what life is like in Buenos Aires, but before the story begins, photos from the “disappeared” cover the screen and slowly fall away, like leaves in autumn slowly floating to the ground. The story begins with Payador (El Duende), a survivor of the “Dirty War,” telling the tale of his lost love, Maria, played by Peabody Southwell. As the opera goes back in time, Maria comes to life with dancers slowly bringing her to life on stage as if emerging from a womb.
The story goes from two lovers being married and quickly shifts to the shadows of Argentine history as the younger Payador, played by Gregorio Gonzalez, is taken into custody for his anti-government activities. When Maria searches for Payador by entering a life of seduction to mingle with police in hope for answers, the story turns bleak as the older Payador believes his Maria is raped by the police. It’s during this scene when the energy in the Opera instantly changes. I could feel the audience’s shock as a bare-breasted Maria reveals the brutality of the period.
By the end, the tormented Maria dies, but not before the captured Payador hears the cries of his love from a distance in the prison of the “disappeared.” So close and yet so far away, the lovers will never unite again. As the Luna Negra Dancers carry Maria’s body in biblical fashion, the older Payador ends his story.
As a long time fan of Piazzolla, the Chicago Opera Theater did a magnificent job not only telling the story of Maria, but drawing the audience into Argentina in 1968, when the opera first premiered.