Programme Notes & Libretto: Maria de Buenos Aires

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programme note, by Robert McFall

Astor Piazzolla’s “operita” María de Buenos Aires, was written in 1968. There are references to “hippies” and to a “Beatle” in the text. The work, however, focuses almost entirely on the cultural world of Buenos Aires – the dances, the street slang, the tango bars, working class life. The libretto, by Horacio Ferrer, has always been considered difficult. The language is highly colourful, and yet at the same time surreal. It draws heavily on the words of the Catholic mass, but also on street slang. It mixes in many references to gambling, horse racing, tango dancing, drinking, domestic violence and music. The first act culminates in an Easter mass marking María’s death. The second and final act culminates in references to Christmas and a miraculous birth.

The character of María encapsulates womanhood, poverty, essential goodness, bad luck, godliness, as well as sex. Tango is her music. Her story looks both backwards into the past and forwards into the future – she is both “portent amongst women” and “forgotten amongst women”. What is never in doubt is the extent to which El Duende, the spirit who watches over her and is the principal voice in the opera, adores this tragic figure.

Very little happens in the story, which makes it a difficult piece to put on – extra strands of story line are generally imported to make it work on stage. Essentially the plot is this: María is conjured up by El Duende, grows up in a poor area on the edge of town, moves to the city centre, is corrupted and dies. In act two she wanders about as a shadow through various circles of her own hell – one of which is the circle of psychoanalysts. El Duende, through the cooperation of some mysterious “drunk marionettes” in the bar where he is drinking, sends the germ of a child to her so that she gives birth to a new María, who is the same María, but at the same time not the same…The miraculous birth brings about hallucinations and trembling in the people, construction workers and spaghetti kneaders, who witness the event.

This is, essentially, a concert performance. We have, however, introduced an original dramatic element by way of Geraldine Comte’s accompanying film. Scenes of contemporary Buenos Aires street life form a backdrop for the performance. Occasionally, in instrumental numbers, the film takes centre stage and becomes the character of María herself – we see her being transported in a trance to the city centre in Fuga y misterio and wandering the city as a shadow at dawn in Tangata del alba. In Allegro tangabile a rabble of marionettes and other colourful street characters search for the germ of a child to give to the shadow of María. This film has been shot in Buenos Aires and elsewhere in Argentina within the last few months.

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