Astor Piazzolla - Maria de Buenos Aires
Theater Orchester Biel, 2016
Esteban Dominguez Gonzalvo, Olivier Tambosi, Christiane Boesiger, Richard Bousquet
Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert - 29 June 2016
You wouldn't expect a tango opera to have much in common with a 'conventional' opera, and the strength of Astor Piazzolla's 'tango operita' Maria de Buenos Aires is indeed that it strives to meet the demands of the tango music's own inner narrative and tradition more than it does to conform to theatrical conventions. Staged productions of the work are rare however, so it was a pleasure to see just how lively and invigorating this piece can be when played on its own terms as it was in the captivating Theater Orchester Biel production for the 2016 Armel Opera Festival.
For it to be an opera however, Maria de Buenos Aires needs to be more than just a string of generic tango songs with a common theme linked together by a spoken narrative. Or perhaps that's not the essential criteria, as you could judge operetta and baroque opera by those standards. Initially, that does seem like the path that Maria de Buenos Aires is going to follow, the opera opening with a lament that recounts Maria's birth in a nowhere district through to her arrival as a woman looking for work in Buenos Aires and finding it in the traditional occupation for a single woman new to the big city.
What is exceptional about this opening number however (and evident throughout) is the poetry in the music and the libretto. Maria, we are told, was born on "a day that God was drunk", hammering "three black nails" into her voice, giving her a love for and a gift for the tango. We have a protagonist who is the embodiment (and later the disembodiment) of tango itself. Piazzolla's music reflects everything that is familiar with the form of the tango but with a similar poetic and self-referential expression. The familiar melancholic narrative has a celebratory rhythm, the immigrant's tale of love and misfortune sustained by a determination to weather adversity.
Piazzolla's nuevo tango music however extends the range of the traditional form to incorporate a richer melodic language that can express a wider outlook. The detached elegance of the rigid dance rhythms of the guitar, bandoneón, double-bass and piano are enriched with a jazz-influenced touch, with greater melodic expression in the violins and flute to give mood and narrative flavour. With an expanded string arrangements and drums to boost the rhythmic drive, the music for this opera has something then of the storytelling qualities of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens or Joan Manuel Serrat, with a little of Michel Legrand's jazz swing. But it also has a little more than that. It has the tango. It's a dance.
It's another dimension, incorporating several artforms into one and giving it a dramatic narrative, that makes Maria de Buenos Aires a proper Gesamtkunstwerk - an opera. And it's the quality of Astor Piazzolla's music and Horacio Ferrer's libretto that makes it a great opera, the story not merely concerned with surface narrative, but truly exploring human nature and its expression; its expression in the form of the tango music and the dance. It's the joy and anguish of living, and what is more expressive of those moods and sentiment than the tango, jazz and the blues? It's also about dying, and Maria de Buenos Aires spends much of its second half in that world as well with the Sombra de Maria and its duende narrator.
Just like any opera however it only really comes to life in performance and the Theater Orchester Biel Solothurn production of Maria de Buenos Aires presented at the Armel Opera Festival really is a thing of wonder. It's no small matter to try and present the elusive qualities of the sometimes abstract and surreal narrative and give it a theatrical form. The dim, colourful nightclub-like lighting of Karen Petermann's set and costume design evokes the necessary mood. The songs of the opera are very much of the ballad format, sung to the audience rather than in a dramatic context and that is retained in director Olivier Tambosi's direction, but there is good expression to the narrative content in the use of dancers, who don't rely on traditional tango dancing to express the meaning of the work.
It would be a mistake in any case to present Maria de Buenos Aires as a dramatic narrative. With the profane religious overtones of a title that correlates a Buenos Aires prostitute with the Virgin Mary, the work is clearly allegorical and keen to work with contrasts and contradictions. It's those contradictions that are symbolic of the nature of life and death in Buenos Aires, that speaks of the love and regret, that tries to delve into the areas of complex human sentiments, impressions and moods that there are no words to express. It's a work of tango that ultimately speaks of the nature of the tango itself.
The musical performance of the tango ensemble under the direction of Esteban Dominguez Gonzalvo is utterly authentic, transporting you into this world. You don't need to be an expert in tango or nuevo tango to recognise the brilliance of the musical performance and the expression it gives to the drama. If the work only comes to life in the performance, Maria de Buenos Aires needs someone who can make the symbolic drama of Maria real and personal, and Christiane Boesiger's performance is impressive, switching between moods of melancholic ballads and celebratory joys with all the verve of Maria's love of tango. She also takes on the role of the duende narrator in German, but her Argentinean-inflected Spanish for the songs is just perfect. Tenor Richard Bousquet sings the role of 'the Man' in a competition role here, and although the role calls for more of a balladeer than a tenor, he sings it with great lyricism.
Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival