Last night, Philip invited me to a type of concert dance I’d never experienced before: a combination of opera, dance, and spoken word labeled, by the work’s author Astor Piazzolla, a tango operita. Piazzolla’s MARIA DE BUENOS AIRES, performed by the Gotham Chamber Opera and the David Parsons Dance Group, focuses on the life of Maria, a young woman from the suburban slums of Argentina, who makes her way to Buenos Aires where, lured by the music and dance of tango, she becomes a prostitute and is eventually destroyed.
I found the amalgamation of the three art forms delightful. At the start, as an ensemble of dancers tangoed in pairs of two or three, a man acting as a kind of chorus standing atop a pile of chairs spoke, forebodingly, in Spanish. Then two singers emerged, one, contralto Nicole Piccolomini, playing Maria, the other bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera, as one of her lovers. Two dancers, each representing the two main characters, danced the words they sang. The main action was portrayed by the two pairs, with the chorus and ensemble re-appearing throughout. All words spoken and sung were in Spanish and there were no supertitles (although a set can be downloaded from their website). Throughout much of the operita, the dancers were onstage at the same time as the singers, so you really didn’t need the supertitles anyway — the dancers beautifully conveying as they did what those words were.
The dancing was breathtaking. Co-choreographed by modern dancer Parsons and tango great Pablo Pugliese, it wasn’t pure tango, but a fusion of the quintessential Argentinian social dance with ballet, with lots of beautiful lifts and sensual partnering, resulting in movement at times sexy and sultry, at times poetic. I enjoyed this combination more than the more pure concert tango I’ve seen by the likes of Guillermina Quiroga and Luis Bravo. The balletic movement added an ethereal dimension to the voluptuous social dance. I was so smitten by the dancing in fact, that I can’t wait to see Parsons’ company — a colorful, multi-ethnic bunch that worked well here to exemplify the full flavor of Argentina — again. Although… the addition of the opera made me wonder if I’d be as fulfilled with only the dancing. The song, dance and spoken word each added a layer to the whole portrait of Maria.
I don’t really know how to talk about opera since I haven’t seen a lot of it, but the voices of Piccolomini and Herrera were gorgeously, decadently rich. Piccolomini in particular has a lush, sultry voice that really just seduces you like a thick, full-bodied Merlot. And the woman has vixenish allure galore!
My only real qualm was with the story. I really didn’t see one. The program notes made clear there was to be no linear narrative, but rather the (eye-rolling IMO) theme — “Maria, both Madonna and whore, represents the spirit of tango, Buenos Aires, and all of womanhood” — was to be expressed through poetic vignettes. I certainly don’t need a linear narrative and I like the idea of the vignettes, but I only really saw “Maria the whore” here. Maria, young and naive, only appeared for a second at the beginning, throughout the middle I only saw Maria the seducer and rarely Maria the seduced, and, at the end, Maria gives birth to another version of herself, beginning the process from virgin to whore to mother anew. But I wouldn’t have known a birth was what I was witnessing as the dancer Maria pops out from under a table and is carried about flexed-footed by a male dancer if the program notes didn’t so indicate. And I would have been more moved if I would have seen more dimensions to Maria, if I would have witnessed her transition from naive young girl to seduced to prostitute to mother.
Still, the dancing and singing were so superb, and the amalgam of the three art forms unique, this is definitely worth seeing. But hurry, you only having tonight and tomorrow night! It’s at Skirball: go here for tickets.