Syracuse Opera’s “María de Buenos Aires”: A fitful, incoherent dream set to the tune of tango

"María de Buenos Aires" playing at the Syracuse Opera. María de Buenos Aires

Who: Syracuse Opera

Where: 411 Montgomery St, Syracuse, NY

Review by Sarah Hope

Syracuse Opera’s production of Astor Piazzolla’s “María de Buenos Aires” is a confusing collection of truly great performances, held together poorly by a poetic but frustratingly ambiguous libretto. 

First performed at Sala Planeta in Buenos Aires in May 1968, “María de Buenos Aires” tells the tragic tale of María, a woman seduced to her doom by the rhythm and sex of tango, and then reborn from the ashes.

Undoubtedly, the standalone stars of this “operita” (little opera) are the Symphoria musicians, who bring Piazzolla’s lively Argentinian score to life. Led by renowned conductor Brian Demaris, their sonic narration of the trials and tribulations of María and other women like her is the highlight of this performance. Particularly, Kenneth Meyer’s masterful command of the genre on the guitar is mesmerizing, effectively transporting the audience to the seedy but exciting barrio of Buenos Aires. Bandeonista (is that an instrument?) JP Jofre is comparably skillful on tango’s essential accordion-like instrument.

Second only to the orchestra is the ensemble, who paint the emotional complexity of the narrative across the stage with their fluid collective and individual forms. The symbolic fellowship of the female prostitutes and their boorish johns, juxtaposed with two tango-dancing couples, sets up a crucial dialogue between the dueling powers of tango - to seduce and to destroy. Syracuse choreographer Anthony Salatino’s staging is hypnotic, and truly reflects the poetic character of both Piazzolla’s score and Horatio Ferrer’s libretto.

María (Catalina Cuervo) and El Payador (Luis Alejandro Orozco) in Syracuse Opera's "María de Buenos Aires." (Photo by Dick Blume)

Catalina Cuervo is stunning in the opera’s title role. Though this is her Syracuse Opera debut, Cuervo has performed the role for the Florida Grand Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Milwaukee Opera. Her wide-ranging soprano is controlled and affecting; she illustrates with ease both the dark passion of the dance by which she is seduced, as well as the careening sorrow of loss and spiritual death. Even when dancing under the enlivening spell of tango, her carriage is heavy with the weight of emotion and the moral significance that hangs over the opera.

Playing opposite Cuervo in the role of El Payador is Luis Alejandro Orozco, whose full and arresting baritone is jarring when it arrives, the first voice to rise after the period of alternating rhythm and silence that opens the performance. After mere seconds, though, his ringing intonation captivates the listener, and we are eager to listen to what he has to say.

In traditional Argentinian folk music, the payada (sung by El Payador) is a form of improvised poetry performance, where dueling payadors compete to produce the most poetic verse, generally through a series of questions. In “María de Buenos Aires,” El Payador acts as both the object of María’s lust and the knowing payador who sets the moral scene, questioning truth and fate.

The primary narrator is El Duende (Milton Loayza). This role is spoken, not sung, but Loayza’s forceful delivery, accompanied by quintessential operatic gestures make him a delight to watch.

In Ferrer’s libretto, El Duende begins as something between a Greek chorus and a ringmaster, narrating María’s entrance into the underworld of the Buenos Aires barrio where she resides, and dramatically proclaiming her fall from grace. In that moment, however, he becomes her antagonist, decrying her moral turpitude and underlining her deserved death.

After a team of psychoanalysts evaluate la sombra de María (the ghost of María) in a jolly burlesque, and El Duende’s marionettes taunt her and pummel her spirit back into morally acceptable territory, María is reborn of her own soul in the image of the Virgin Mary.

Despite universally great performances, the opera felt disjointed. Though the punitive, puritanical moral lesson is hard to miss - if you let passion rule you, it will destroy you, and only through the grace of God will you be reborn - the story is not engaging. Ferrer’s poetic libretto is beautiful, and alone would be a striking piece of art to see performed or even simply to read. Unfortunately, audiences not well-versed in Argentinian folklore or the myriad allegories of the Catholic faith will be lost in significant moments. For the number of times that I was yanked out of the moment by the narrative incoherence, I would have rather seen a pantomime of the story accompanied by Piazzolla’s evocative score.

All in all, I would recommend going to see this production of “María de Buenos Aires,” if only for the compelling performances. The music alone is worth the price of admission. Just don’t expect an intelligible narrative, or to walk away with a firm grasp on a story that will stick with you for decades to come.

As I left the theater, I heard one patron ask another, “what did you think?”

“I suppose it was wonderful,” she replied, “but I have no idea what it was about.”