Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

María de Buenos Aires
Mill City Summer Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Don't Dress for Dinner, Motown the Musical, and Glensheen


J.P. Jofre (on bandoneon), Megan McClellan,
and Brian Sostek

Photo by Dan Norman
María was an innocent young woman from the country, dressed in white, her long dark hair freely hanging down her back. She arrives in Buenos Aires, a vast sprawl of people, passions and poisons and with little resistance is seduced by the lure of the tango and the night. She reappears dressed in red, her hair cut severely, finding her way from partner to partner. Alas, such a life is short lived. After María is killed—stabbed, they say, by seven blades—she returns as shadow María, looming over those who continue to couple and dance and decouple in the dark labyrinths of the city, and in time gives birth to a new María, who will inevitably continue the cycle of longing, brief fulfillment and eternal loss. All of this is played out to Astor Piazzolla's spectacularly dramatic music, drawn from both traditional and new tango.

That is the story—as I understood it—in María de Buenos Aires, this year's production by Mill City Summer Opera, its sixth annual production. My hesitance to say that I completely captured the plot comes from the opera's text, by Argentine-Uruguayan poet and tango lyricist Horacio Ferrer, rich with poetic description, myth and religious iconography, but lacking narrative focus. As it unrolls, the opera sometimes cycles back, and we find ourselves revisiting an earlier theme, never quite sure where we have landed. For this reason, María de Buenos Aires works as a set of impressions that begin with images of virtue which, once lost, turn into anguish that is visited again and again on the generations. It is a harsh point of view on the essence of life. Or, perhaps, a comment on the essence of life in the corrupting confines of endless city.

In spite of a text that is difficult to follow (the program notes state that even some of the performers are not really sure what their poetically composed words actually mean) and that, when it is understood, is downright depressing, María de Buenos Aires is worth seeing, and especially, worth hearing—for the stunning Astor Piazzolla score and for the soaring vocals of Catalina Cuervo as María and Luis Alejandro Orozco as Payador (and other roles). Astor Piazzolla was the foremost proponent of the genre called "new tango," marrying the brooding and disciplined rhythms of the tango with the openness of jazz and new age music. He most often composed for small groups, heavily using the bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument with a sound of incredible yearning. In María de Buenos Aires, which premiered in 1968, he embellished new tango with other sounds, from waltz to barroom hurdy-gurdy and scored the work for a larger ensemble, allowing the music to be expressed with a wider emotional range. It is truly a masterful and beautiful composition.

Catalina Cuervo, a native of Colombia, has made María de Buenos Aires a touchstone of her career, playing the role more than any other singer alive today. Her rich contra-alto captures both the seductive power and the despair of this woman. Luis Alejandro Orozco sings the roles of the men who cross María's path, some compassionate, others heartless. His baritone soars and expresses all of the feelings—lust, scorn, tenderness, regret—imbedded in the text. As El Duende, a mythic personage who speaks truth and who accompanies María after death, Milton Loayza acts as a narrator, his warm spoken tones becoming musical even though the part is written to be spoken, rather than sung.

Two featured dance roles, as a pair of lovers and later as marionettes under the El Duende's control, are performed by Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan, known to local audiences for their Ivey-winning theater-dance piece Trick Boxing and numerous other dance and theater roles. They do not disappoint. The rest of the ensemble—three who hail from Saint Paul, three from Argentina—dance gracefully to Fernanda Ghi's choreography, which is surprisingly light on tango (though the small playing space may be a limiting factor), but always evocative and artful.

Stage director David Lefkowich creates evocative images in his groupings of performers, focusing on the emotional tension between María and the Payador, with the ensemble at times nonchalantly sitting at bistro tables before moving seductively onto the dance floor. Brian DeMaris conducts the excellent orchestra, sounding as if playing Piazzolla's complex and exotic composition is second nature to them. J.P. Jofre, an Argentine bandoneon artist, had several feature solos which without fail held the audience in awe at the performance I attended.

In terms of its content and scale, María de Buenos Aires is a departure from past works mounted by Mill City Summer Opera. Their first five offerings included two comic operas (The Barber of Seville and Daughter of the Regiment), two tragic operas (Tosca and Pagliacci), and one grand guignol (Sweeney Todd)—a diverse array, but all adhering to the basic form and narrative drive of opera. María de Buenos Aires is much shorter than most operas—90 minutes, performed without intermission—with only three solo vocalists—only two who sing—and a small ensemble that provides some additional vocal power, but is primarily a dance ensemble.

This production is also a departure for Mill City Summer Opera's venue. In their first five years, MCSO mounted its work in the imposing stone-block Washburn flour mill ruins in the Minneapolis Mill District. With no roof above, the night sky enhanced the stage lighting, and the current of the Mississippi River behind the stage added a gentle murmur to the score. This year, with restoration work underway within the ruins, MCSO moved across the river to an indoor venue. The Machine Shop, built in 1917 to service the massive Pillsbury mills, has recently been reclaimed as a stylish event facility that retains the structure's century old architectural detail. It is a charming venue, but not ideal for this use.

María de Buenos Aires is performed on the floor in the center of a large room, with the audience in rows on floor level (and a few tiered rows behind those) on three sides, the orchestra on the fourth side. Without a raised stage, sight lines are difficult, especially in sequences staged very low to the floor. On the positive side, acoustics are surprisingly good, with Jake Davis credited as audio designer, and Alan Edwards does a masterful job of lighting the space to create the atmosphere of slow descent from light to darkness. Christopher Verdosci's costumes and Jason Allen's wig and makeup design effectively convey the desperation of these characters lives, which is briefly relieved by tango.

With María de Buenos Aires, Mill City Summer Opera offers a change of pace from what it has done before, and exposes its audience to a beautiful, little known score, magnificently sung and played. It was announced that they will return to their former venue, within the mill ruins, next summer, and perhaps that means also returning to more traditional fare. This summer's excursion across the river is the chance for them to offer something quite different, not altogether pleasing, but a work of beauty and certainly one that cries to be experienced.

María De Buenos Aries presented by Mill City Summer Opera, continues at the Machine Shop, 300 2nd Street S.E., Minneapolis, MN through July 20, 2017. Tickets: $50.00 - $125.00. For tickets call 612-875-5544 or go to MillCitySummerOpera.org.

Texts: Horacio Ferrer; Music: Astor Piazzolla; Stage Director: David Lefkowich; Musical Director: Brian DeMaris; Choreography: Fernanda Ghi; Scenic and Lighting Design: Alan Edwards; Audio Design: Jake Davis; Costume Design: Christopher Verdosci; Wig and Make-up Design: Jason Allen; Props Master: Abbee Warmboe; Repetiteur: Lara Bolton; Production Manager: Debbie Tallen: Stage Manager: Brett Finley; Assistant Stage Director: Mallory Lammers; Assistant Stage Manager: Cassandra Flowers; Assistant Production Manager: Sarah Bauer.

Cast: Catalina Cuervo (María/Shadow María), JP Jofre (Bandoneon), Milton Loayza (Analista Primero/Voz de Ese Domingo/ El Duende), Megan McClellan (featured dancer), Louis Alejandro Orozco (Payador/PorteƱo/ Ladron Antiguo/Mayor/Luis), and Brian Sostek (featured dancer). Ensemble: Bruce Abas, Rebecca Abas, Tamara DeMarco, Juan Garcia, Mark Jefferis, Liliana Imwinkelried.


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