Tango Maria de Buenos Aires: An opera with a dark heart

Maria de Buenos Aires uses tango to create a nightmarish underworld, says Jo Kerrigan.

TANGO opera Maria de Buenos Aires, at Cork Opera House this Midsummer, will draw you into the Argentine capital’s slums. The show is peopled with thieves, brothel keepers, and lost waifs.

The hypnotic, beating music and the libretto are by visionary artists, Astor Piazzolla and Horacio Ferrer, respectively, who premiered the tango opera at the Sala Planeta, in Buenos Aires, in 1968. It is the Opera House’s big-budget production for the year.

The core of the show are director Conor Hanratty, musical director, John O’Brien, and US choreographer, John Heginbotham. Designers, Joe Vanek and Paul Keoghan, are transforming the Opera House stage into a waterfront bar brimming with dancers, escorts, waiters and entertainers, all moving to the passionate beat of the tango.

The central area is circular and painted red, akin to a bullring. That’s no accident. On the dance floor of a seedy dive, an innocent creature is spot-lit and condemned.

“It’s an incredible, collaborative effort,” says John O’Brien, between rehearsals. “Direction, music, movement, design — our minds are melding together and creating something unbelievable.”

Most operatic plots are sad, if not tragic, but this one goes further. The ill-fated María, born “one day when God was drunk” in a poor suburb of Buenos Aires, drifts into the underworld, seduced by the music of the tango, and becomes a streetwalker. Death is inevitable, and she is condemned to wander the streets as a shadow. But she is reborn, to see the effect she and her dancing had on the lives of others.

The opera’s strange characters include a poet-narrator who is also a goblin-like duende, a mythological creature from Latin American folklore. This central, male role is played by actress Olwen Fouere, who is half- Breton, half-Irish. She brings the right sense of hidden power to her character. In rehearsal, she is hypnotic as she pads like a lion around the stage, moving her petty players as she wishes and cynically observing their actions. One is reminded of Siân Phillips in a Greek drama.

Camilla Griehsel takes the title role of Maria, sensuous yet poignantly fragile. Griehsel is at home in a range of roles and disciplines, and has no difficulty adapting to the multi-skilled demands of this production. In rehearsal, she watches as the confident payador, or singer of traditional songs, effortlessly performs a swirling turn, then comes towards her to kiss her hand. Griehsel/Maria’s slow-lidded smile of response is pure theatre. Nuno Silva, who plays the payador, is Portuguese-born and fluent in both dance and music (as is the cast). Villa Hiltula, one of the world’s leading players, is on the Argentine accordion.

Dance is a big part of Maria de Buenos Aires, but not, as you might think, entirely tango. “We have two professional tangoists in our cast,” says Heginbotham, “but they’re learning ballet and contemporary, too, as the other dancers are learning the technique and principle of tango. In the production, overall, we wanted a blend of all kinds of movement, not just one form.”

As he directs a small group, their arms are in balletic mode, their feet tapping like hip-hop. “Exactly,” says Heginbotham. “This is an opera that will appeal to all ages, to all kinds of people. It’s completely different. It’s unexpected.”

Hanratty says: “This is opera as you’ve never seen it. Piazzolla created his own form, and now we are recreating it our way.”

Maria will attract a more varied audience than is usual for opera, given its eclectic mix of musical and dance forms, and the seamy plot.

Most of the performers are international, accustomed to playing in major venues. “We’ve got the whole globe covered, between us,” says O’Brien. What has drawn established performers to Cork, to this strange production? “It’s because it’s so cool,” says O’Brien

* Maria de Buenos Aires, Cork Opera House, 8pm, Wednesday, Jun 19 to Sat, Jun 22; 6pm, Sun, Jun 23. Performed in Spanish with English surtitles. Bookings: 021-4270022 or www.corkoperahouse.ie.


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