Pan Am Symphony's "Maria": Ave!

Washington Post - Joe McLellan, September 19, 1996

With Placido Domingo taking charge of the Washington Opera and leading it in new directions, this is shaping up as a year for Spanish and Latin American opera in Washington. But the trend doesn't begin with Domingo or his company; it was launched Friday night at Trinity College under the humble but skilled auspices of the Pan American Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sergio Alessandro Buslje.

"Maria de Buenos Aires," which will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night in the chapel of Trinity College on Michigan Avenue NE, was called an "operita" (little opera) by its composer, Astor Piazzolla (1921-92), to distinguish it from both the more pretentious genre of grand opera and the more frivolous operetta.

It has similarities to both those forms and even more to oratorio, but it is utterly unlike anything else that is likely to happen in Washington this season, including the Washington Opera's "Il Guarany" and "El Gato Montes." Opera lovers with adventurous tastes will find it strange and wonderful, as well as, perhaps, a bit confusing.

There is nothing at all confusing about the music. Piazzolla became world famous in his later years as the kind of Argentine tango, and that passionate, rhythmically exciting dance form, with variations, is the basic musical language of "Maria de Buenos Aires" -- a language that s powerful, engaging and easy to understand. The text, by Piazzolla's poet friend Horacio Ferrer, presents more problems, not only because its Spanish is peppered with lunfardo - Buenos Aires slang -- but because the story has a surrealistic plot laden with both Christian and secular symbols.

Maria is many kinds of woman, unattainable but also a prostitute, dead but resurrected, simultaneously tragic and comic, and invoked at the end with a litany that echoes the "Ave Maria":

Our Maria of Buenos Aires,
Forgotten art thou among women,
Our Maria of Buenos Aires,
Portent art thou among women.

Among other dimensions, the "operita" is a love song to Buenos Aires, symbolized by Maria. The men who love, lose, curse and manipulate her are as symbolic as Maria: a goblin (actually a duende, for which no precise equivalent exists in English), a street person named Buenos Aires Dreamy Sparrow, a psychoanalyst, thieves, marionettes, bricklayers, a gaucho minstrel. The story dissolves in a cloud of poetic-symbolic details, which are what count.

The more Spanish you know, the better, and the inexpensive libretto sold at the door (full Spanish text with English summary) is helpful. But the words create their own music, independent of their literal meaning, and this music blends magically with Piazzolla's tangos.

The Pan American Symphony Orchestra is a community ensemble- amateur but quite skilled -- with a special interest in Latin American music, and it did justice to this challenging work, with the help of four world class-class soloists: Raul Jaurena, master of the accordion-like bandoneon, which is the archetypal tango instrument; Hugo Medrano, a narrator with impressive acting skills, Venezuelan mezzo-soprano Marga Mitchell, with a voice of great dramatic and musical power, and Argentine tenor Martin de Leon, who has quite simply one of the finest voices I have ever heard for tango and Latin American popular music.

Conductor Buslje has done a remarkable job of organizing this show and making it work in performance.