Astor Piazzolla famously revolutionized the tango, making the old dance form far richer by infusing it with elements of Bach, Stravinsky and modern jazz. Still, the composer and bandoneon virtuoso's formula for the "nuevo tango" genre he created was an earthy one: "nuevo tango = tango + tragedy + comedy + whorehouse."
The ultimate product of this equation was "Maria de Buenos Aires," the theatrical work Piazzolla created with a fellow Argentine, poet Horacio Ferrer, in the late '60s. A singular blend of music, dance and incantation, it's an avant-cabaret hybrid Piazzolla labeled a "tango operita." Although it owes a smoky debt to Weimar-era Brecht/Weill, "Maria" swirls in a heady mix of Latin romanticism and magical realism very much its own.
Led by conductor Neal Goren, Gotham Chamber Opera is opening its eighth, most ambitious season yet with "Maria de Buenos Aires" at New York University's Skirball Center, a state-of-the-art, 860-seat theater. The company ventures far beyond the tired mainstream, and the "Maria" performance last night showed how entertaining that mission can be.
At a snappy 70 minutes, "Maria de Buenos Aires" spins the tale of a poor girl who goes to the city equipped with the only moneymaker her mother could bequeath -- her body; she revels in the newfound freedom, but booze and bad men lead to dissolution and death. She's rescued from a haunted afterlife, but the miracle yields a baby girl who will follow in her dance steps.
The story is as old as Babylon. But hand in glove with Piazzolla's darkly rhythmic music, Ferrer's poetry relays the narrative in a dreamlike way, the Spanish words at once low-down and high-flown. "Maria" is a sensual experience more than a dramatic one, which Gotham underscored by not translating the verse with surtitles. This riveted one's attention on the sexy tangoists of Parsons Dance -- who were given wonderfully evocative things to do by choreographers David Parsons and Pablo Pugliese, whether bordello assignations or a mock funeral.
The projections and lighting, all dark blues and reds, evoke rooms where the shades are always drawn. Once past a stiff opening, the Gotham chamber band played beautifully, with the accent on key Piazzolla instruments -- violin, guitar and bandoneon, a small accordion. As Maria, contralto Nicole Piccolomini has a big voice, although the mics amplified the fact that she didn't always hit the center of her notes; all statuesque pride, she wasn't believable as anyone's victim, either.
Once one hears the definitive 1998 recording of "Maria" led by Gidon Kremer, it's hard to shake Ferrer's sagelike voice as the narrator/medium, Duende. Still, Colombian-born actor Diego Arciniegas has his own intense charisma. Baritone Ricardo Herrera -- as the Porteno, a Buenos Aires Everyman who wants to save Maria -- sings with idiomatic lyricism.
Despite the cautionary world weariness on its surface, "Maria de Buenos Aires" is a characteristic Piazzolla