The most interesting event of this busy operatic week may not have been at the Metropolitan Opera but rather the attractive Skirball Center for the Performing Arts off Washington Square. The Gotham Chamber Opera is putting on Astor Piazzolla’s “María de Buenos Aires,” and if the fine young company does not quite have this tango-driven masterpiece in its embrace, it does well enough.
It can be said that “María de Buenos Aires” isn’t an opera at all, more accurately a cantata, maybe a song cycle, but in either case moved along by florid narration and nonstop dancing. There are dramatic scenes but no dramatic arc in this portrait of a prostitute in life and death. Opera is about acting out. “María” is storytelling, here in the form of poems by Horacio Ferrer.
Piazzolla’s magical sounds argue for a future classical music (if the term “classical music” has not meanwhile died a natural death) that comes more from the streets of urban Latin America than the think tanks of Darmstadt, the postwar European theater of bloodthirstiness or the wan salesmanship practiced by most American composers now writing for the stage.
The tango’s juxtaposition of sudden gesture, balanced grace and imperturbable dignity possesses a life force, and Piazzolla, who died in 1992, neither photocopies the original nor weakens it with high-art cleverness. His is the only work I know that keeps popular music popular and makes it better, with subtle dislocations between vocal line and accompaniment and sparse but lovely instrumentation. The fugue halfway through the evening may be a well-educated composer showing off, but he is allowed.
Am I going overboard? Perhaps, but what a pleasure not just to admire a contemporary piece but also to be hopelessly attracted to it. The melodies, with their gently falling sequences and jerks of syncopation, do not really deal in surprise: we know what is coming and can hardly wait for it to arrive.
Singers and players are amplified in this production, and no one used the enhancement more subtly than Ricardo Herrera, whose dark, gentle singing gave the evening an impressive humanity. Nicole Piccolomini in the title role had an equally dark, genuine contralto; one liked her more for the flat-out enthusiasm than for soulfulness.
Diego Arciniegas, narrating the Spanish-language texts, was appropriately over the top. I wish the choreography by David Parsons and Pablo Pugliese had hewed more narrowly to tango dancing itself rather than just deriving from it. On the other hand, the drawbacks to the evening resided with performers who often had the style in their heads but not in their bones; maybe dancers were being directed to where their competence lay, not where the music belonged. The spoken chorus parts were not confidently done.
Tango lives or dies by the quality of its accordionlike bandoneón, and Héctor Del Curto was a splendid player. Neal Goren conducted and played the piano with a nice naturalness. Scott Kuney was the graceful guitarist. Dancers shadowed the principal singers. Chief among them were Malvina Sardou, Miguel Quinones, Kevin Fitzgerald Ferguson and Tommy Scrivens.