COT's 'Maria de Buenos Aires' a dark tango with history

With acts of terror again splashed across front pages, the sheer immediacy of Chicago Opera Theater's production of "Maria de Buenos Aires" hits you like a blow to the solar plexus. The show, which opened Saturday at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, may at times be uncomfortable to watch but is nevertheless essential viewing.

Just as the composer, Astor Piazzolla, breathed new life into the tango as a musical form, so has Andreas Mitisek, COT's brilliant general director, transformed a dramatically static piece into a chilling examination of one woman's fate during Argentina's 1976-83 "Dirty War" against dissidents. An estimated 30,000 people were abducted, imprisoned, tortured, murdered or simply disappeared under the brutal rule of a military dictatorship.

The powerful piece of contemporary music theater the versatile Mitisek conceived, designed, directed and conducts, makes certain we do not forget.

COT is billing this as the work's Chicago stage premiere, which may be stretching things a bit, since "Maria de Buenos Aires" was given at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2011, albeit in a version that was closer to a concert performance than an actual staging. It gets the full monty here in a stark, gripping production that originated last year at Mitisek's other company, Long Beach Opera.

Piazzolla's 1968 magnum opus, with a surreal libretto by Horacio Ferrer, is a kind of song-and-dance Passion play, in which Maria, a streetwalker "born on a day when God was drunk," represents both the Virgin Mary and Jesus. She is killed by pimps and thieves and, after her resurrection, gives birth to a beatified version of herself. The 75-minute piece, which its creators dubbed a "tango operita," unfolds more as a series of poetic tableaux than an opera — hence the challenge to all who would stage it.

Mitisek has done so brilliantly, using a narrator and two singers, plus eight dancers from Chicago's Luna Negra Dance Theater, to create a beautifully integrated swirl of song, speech, dance, mime, dramatic action and video imagery. It's as fluid and intoxicating as the tango rhythms that well up from the nine-member pit band under Mitisek's baton.

In the conductor-director-designer's gritty retelling, Maria represents all women who disappeared or died ignominiously in the "Dirty War." Her former lover, now an old man called El Duende, recalls in flashbacks their brief happiness before she is captured, raped and left to languish in a prison cell. Here the bandoneon sings a song of mourning far removed from the snappy, slinky music of seduction commonly associated with the tango.

Mitisek and his creative team, including lighting designer Dan Weingarten and video designer Adam Flemming, bathe the stage in brooding darkness, pinpointing the dramatic action in scenes spotlit behind a scrim bristling with video projections. The video combines grainy black-and-white news footage from the period with newly created images made to look old. Faces of some of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children vanished during the "Dirty War," flash across the scrim. A montage of prisoners' faces spreads across the stage; one by one, the pictures peel off and float to the stage like falling leaves.

That Mitisek makes the conceptual unity work without having to change a single word of Ferrer's richly metaphoric text, or a single note in Piazzolla's catchy score, is remarkable. As conductor, he is fully inside the musical idiom, as Piazzolla's tangos shift the mood from romantic to anxious to consoling. His ensemble of strings, flute, piano, percussion and, most crucially, bandoneon, is right there with him. Peter Soave deserves a special shout-out for the marvelous way in which he makes his expressive bandoneon virtually a full-fledged character in the drama.

It would be hard to imagine a more committed or able cast of performers.

Peabody Southwell turns in a brave and what must be physically exhausting performance, using her smoky mezzo-soprano along with her acting and dancing skills to make Maria a heroine whose fate we really care about. Gregorio Luke is equally strong in the spoken role of the Older Payador, and Gregorio Gonzalez brings an impassioned baritone to the Younger Payador. The Luna Negra dancers are wonderful, too, especially at the end when they bear Maria's lifeless body in a solemn ritual no doubt meant to suggest the deposition of Christ from the Cross. The singers are amplified, discreetly and effectively.

Ultimately the triumph of COT's new take on "Maria de Buenos Aires" lies in how ingeniously it pulls one life out of a sea of anonymous victims, puts a human face on it and shows us how precious that life, and all the others sacrificed to political violence, were, and still are.

Chicago Opera Theater's production of "Maria de Buenos Aires" plays through April 28 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $35-$125 at 312-704-8414 or chicagooperatheater.org

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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