Review: Murky Maria in a tango tangle

Classical Music Critic

The general director of Chicago Opera Theater (COT), Andreas Mitisek, isn’t shy about his role in the recent production of “Maria de Buenos Aires.” He’s credited in the program as “conductor, director, concept, video concept and production designer.” You’d think with a single mind behind so many of the creative elements of the production, you’d have a clear idea of what’s going on. Yet this “Maria” is a muddle.

Mitisek sets this tango operita during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” a period in the late ’70s and early ’80s when the military junta “disappeared” thousands of its own citizens. One of the ways this is conveyed occurs near the very beginning of the opera when faces of the disappeared are projected onto a scrim at the front of the stage. Nearly 250 photos of victims drop one by one from the screen like leaves off an autumn tree. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s done so slowly and so monotonously you simply cannot wait for it to end. Worse, the lethargic cascade of pictures is strangely awkward and jagged — like a PowerPoint presentation on a computer severely taxed for memory.

Worse, Mitisek has taken a mysterious work of surrealism and horror-fantasy with religious elements and deflated it into a political potboiler with the schoolroom lesson (from Mitisek’s program notes) that “silence is deadly!”

Astor Piazzolla wrote the music in the ’60s, to a book by Horacio Ferrer, so he wasn’t tempted by the same muses of historical events as Mitisek. The COT director ruthlessly removes mystery from the opera and replaces it with dull set pieces, the worst being Maria as a breast-baring spy. The Piazzolla-Ferrer Maria is a woman who embodies a full range of good and bad. She is corrupted and becomes a prostitute. After her death, her hell is to walk the streets of Buenos Aires. She is a character who defies any neat categorization. Not so for Mitisek’s Maria. She’s all heroine: a good-gal subversive who fights the military regime and is tortured, raped and murdered for her pro bono toils. She is tragic, but she is curiously one dimensional.

Strangely, one of Mitisek’s most successful elements contributes to the production’s overall failure. Throughout there are film projections onto the stage, opening with a grainy, black and white montage of movie clips featuring Buenos Aires. Much of this is arresting and well done, including a very brief tango scene which is in near-perfect sync to the live music from the pit. The problem is that the video projections are bold and evocative. When the action moves back to the live singers and dancers on the stage, the shift makes them seem puny and uninteresting. I never thought I’d see an opera production that makes me wish I were really at the movies instead.

Even the still visuals are more powerful than the folks on stage. When Maria is being raped and tortured in one corner of the stage, at the center there is a large photo of Maria with her mouth captured in mid-scream. It’s the photo and not the actual woman who wins your attention.

There seems to be no end to the reasons that directors resort to near darkness in staging operas. In this case the scrim is left down for the entirety of the opera and rarely is the stage brought to even medium-full light, presumably to enhance the idea that the whole business is now only a memory of the narrator: Maria’s old lover who survives prison but is imprisoned by his memories.

It’s hard to see most everything and this is at times made almost laughable by the choice to use microphones for the singers. Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell’s voice is always easy to hear, but the amplification means that at times you have no idea where she is on the stage because of the dingy lighting. Even so, Southwell appears to give it her all. She has a pleasing voice, with intriguing dark elements.

She gives a game performance when she is in her cell, but as the prison looks like the set from Hollywood Squares (with Maria in Paul Lynde’s center spot), it lacks dramatic punch.

Lecturer Gregorio Luke portrays Older Payador (El Duende) with a grim fierceness, even as his character leans heavily on the bottle to get through it all. Gregorio Gonzalez is convincing as Younger Payador, and sings with clarity.

Eight members of the Luna Negra Dance Theater portray various non-speaking, non-singing characters (friends, enemies, the disappeared, guards and spirits). It’s impossible to deny their talents, but in a work described as a tango operita, it is a terrible shame that only lip service is paid to tango itself, with a bare minimum of genuine tango moves used by the dancers. They are at their best near the end of the opera when, after Maria’s death, they carry her body in a manner evoking the removal of Christ from the cross. Their writhing in the Buenos Aires Squares is less satisfying.

But Mitisek’s story is impossible to follow if you haven’t read his own synopsis (another credit!) in the program, and difficult even if you have.

Mitisek might have given himself still one more credit: cheerleader in chief. Ever since he took over COT, every production has opened with him making remarks from stage, in part to encourage ticket sales and subscriptions. I loved his spiel before “The Magic Flute.” I was less entranced by his remarks before “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I was just bored this time. His pre-show speeches have gone from tremendous to tedious in just three operas.

Fortunately, this can’t be said about his conducting. The unquestionable star of the evening is the music of Piazzolla. Mitisek is utterly splendid in the pit, coaxing out the most shimmering and luminous sound. Peter Soave on bandoneon was magnificent, and his work was ably matched by the other eight musicians in the ensemble. In an otherwise shaky production score one for the score.