Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions.... It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.
Long Beach Opera began its 2012 season on Sunday afternoon in the dark deco spaces of the Warner Grand Theater in San Pedro exploring the dark indecorous spaces of authoritarian cruelty with a revised edition of Astor Piazzola and Horacio Ferrer's 1968 "Tango Operita," Maria de Buenos Aires. Jettisoning the plot and supernatural trappings of the original, and shifting the action in time, Andreas Mitisek's production lays open Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 in which the military junta of the time "disappeared" tens of thousands of its own citizens. It is a potent and harrowing look into the abyss, a sort of anti-Evita in which Argentina cries not for celebrity but for justice and human dignity.
In Piazzola and Ferrer's original conception, the figure of Maria represents the "spirit of the Tango." She rises from the slums and enters a life of prostitution, only to be killed by a conspiracy of thieves and brothel keepers; her shade lives on, however, wandering Buenos Aires, ultimately achieving a sort of rebirth and immortality. Maria sings, as does her male counterpart El Duende, who in turn is also portrayed by a non-singing narrator. Dance, naturally, is involved, and there are longer stretches without singing than with. None of the characters is fleshed out at all realistically: Ferrer's text is a long, highly poetic meditation on Maria, her mysterious nature, and El Duende's devotion to the ultimately unattainable essence she embodies.
If Maria is the spirit of the Tango, and the Tango is the spirit of Argentina, then artistic logic dictates that Maria can be transplanted to the late 1970's and can serve as a surrogate for the suffering of the Argentine people. In Mitisek's revision, Maria is a creature of flesh and blood and El Duende, now the younger (singing) and older (speaking) Payador, is as well, the latter narrating from the present day, wracked by his loss and perhaps by survivor's guilt. In his recollection, he and Maria meet and marry; he is taken in by the junta without explanation; Maria seeks him out on the sordid fringes of the military's goon squads, only to fall herself in to their clutches. She is raped, imprisoned, briefly reconnects with her lover in song, and then is killed in her cell. We last see Maria as her body is removed in a tableau reminiscent of Caravaggio.
As LBO's General and Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek is in full auteur mode with this production, responsible not only for the revisions of text and score, but also for the production concept and much of its design. He deserves at this point to be acknowledged as one of the most consistently interesting theatrical minds currently at work in southern California. That he is a skilled and fluid conductor is almost secondary, though his leadership of the small pit ensemble contributed a valuable momentum and scope to Piazzola's twisty, expansive music.
The action unfolds behind a scrim, which serves as a screen for impressionistic film montages—conceived by Mitisek, executed by Adam Flemming—evoking Buenos Aires, picturing some fraction of the actual Disappeared, and advancing and commenting on the action. The older Payador speaks and remembers, the projections lending a dream quality to transitions as the scene moves from barroom to bedroom to interrogation chamber to cell. (The soundlessness with which the large erector-set prison was somehow brought on stage is a credit to the tech crew.)
Mitisek's Maria is Peabody Southwell, in a performance that is fearsomely committed and painfully exposed in every sense. Followers of this blog will know that I am a confessed fan boy when it comes to Ms. Southwell's work in Long Beach, dating to her debut in 2009. This, I think, is easily her strongest performance yet with the company, abetted by her willingness to hold nothing back as an actor while sacrificing none of her considerable gifts as a singer. Her richly burnished mezzo runs a thread of fatalism and sorrow through Maria's tale as she is crushed inexorably beneath the heel of the state.
As the younger, singing Payador, tenor Gregorio Gonzalez is mostly called upon to look dashing and to sing handsomely, which he does. His older self is portrayed by Gregorio Luke, expert and lecturer on Latin American arts and culture and former director of the Museum of Latin American Art. whose sonorous speaking voice seems well suited to Ferrer's verse, albeit tending to veer toward the unnecessarily shouty at the most dramatic moments.
LBO's utility non-singer Mark Bringelson, memorable as the disappearing landowner and the investigating magistrate in last season's Difficulty of Crossing a Field, takes the silent, freshly invented role of Marco. First seen as a slightly goofy barfly being snubbed by the ladies, Maria among them, Marco falls in with the military, the ordinary citizen willing to turn on his fellows. In that capacity, he directs the abduction of Maria's lover, and is personally responsible for Maria's torture and death. Bringelson is appropriately cold and economical as the human face of an inhuman regime.
As reimagined here, Maria de Buenos Aires is fierce and gripping music drama of undeniable power. It does not explain. It will not excuse. It offers no comfort. It does what it can, bearing witness to a great wrong and demanding that we not look away from either the evil that has been done or the thousands of unique, invaluable lives that evil destroyed.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used with kind permission of Long Beach Opera.
One performance of Maria de Buenos Aires remains, at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 4. Tickets are available here.