Maria de Buenos Aires

Gig review: Mr McFall’s Chamber, Edinburgh
By David kettle - Scotsman
Published on 18/05/2013 02:37
* * * *

With empanadas in the bar and candles flickering on the intimate tables that had replaced the usual Queen’s Hall seating, we could just about have been in a sultry Buenos Aires nightclub – well, maybe.
Mr McFall’s Chamber - Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Even if that would have been a stretch of the imagination, there was just the right atmosphere for Mr McFall’s Chamber’s vivid account of María de Buenos Aires, the strange, surreal “operita” by the king of Argentinian nuevo tango, Astor Piazzolla.

More a passion play than a true opera, it tells of María’s journey to the big city, of her corruption and death, and then of her ghost giving birth to another María in a weird reimagining of the Christian nativity – all in a string of rich, sensual tango numbers that the enlarged Mr McFall’s Chamber ensemble pulled off with precision and care.

Chilean singer Valentina Montoya Martínez shone as a charismatic María, but ironically it was tenor Nicholas Mulroy who was the real star, in a succession of characters from travelling storyteller to psychiatrist delivered with suave commitment. Juanjo Lopez Vidal intoned solemnly in the speaking role of the Duende, a spirit narrator, and bandoneón player, and musical director Victor Villena often stole the show with his thrillingly theatrical squeezing and stretching of his instrument.

Balance occasionally went a bit awry with the instrumental ensemble, and the players sometimes seemed to smooth over some of Piazzolla’s striking contrasts. But it was an ambitious and convincing performance, and striking visuals of contemporary Buenos Aires by film-maker Geraldine Comte provided a bold backdrop.

Review – Maria de Buenos Aries
Published: May 17th, 2013
* * * * Latina Soul
Queen’s Hall
Thurs 16 May 2013
Review by Hugh Kerr, Annals of Edinburgh Stage

Nuevo Tango came to the Queen’s Hall last night, replacing the cold of a May spring night in Edinburgh with the warmth of Latin America thanks to another great performance from Mr McFall’s Chamber.

With candle-lit tables in place of the formal rows of seats, once the music of Astor Piazzolla’s operetta Maria de Buenos Aries began it was easy to think you were in Buenos Aires. Not least because of the backdrop of Geraldine Comte’s film of street scenes from that city which, with selected subtitles, enhanced the performance.

Astor Piazzolla, who died in 1992, was a fascinating musician and composer who straddled the world of classical, jazz and dance musics, fusing them into the new form called Nuevo Tango.

Maria de Buenos Aries, written in 1968, tells of a young woman born in a poor area of the city. She moves into the city centre and gets swept up into the world of music, dance, sex and crime and dies young – all of this in Act 1. The second act finds her spirit wandering round the town and commenting on it – including a chorus of psychoanalysts. She is finally reborn in a miraculous fashion and the work ends with hope.

Mr Mcfall’s Chamber played superbly, in a sensual musical flow. They already boast some of the best – and most versatile – musicians in Scotland and for this concert performance they were augmented by music director and bandoneon (accordion) player Victor Villena, with jazz guitarist Malcolm Macfarlane and tango violinist Cyril Garac.

Soloist Juanjo Lopez Vidal sang El Duende, the spirit who overlooked Maria. He has a very bluesy flamenco-style voice which evoked the passion of the work. Maria was sung by Valentina Montoya Martinez, a Chilean singer who brought great feeling and passion to her role – particularly with her great aria Yo soy Maria which she encored.
Internationally renowned tenor Nicholas Mulroy completely the trio of soloists on the night, in a number of different roles. There is no doubting his was the best voice on the stage, with his sweet and powerful tenor often dominating the music – but the question was whether he was too good to fit in with the ensemble and whether he was Spanish enough to evoke the Duende?

At times it reminded you of the famous documentary film in which Leonard Bernstein attempts to record West Side Story with great opera singers Jose Carerras and Kiri Te Kanawa. Great singers – but they are clearly wrong for the roles. However this was a minor concern and did not spoil the enjoyment of an unusual and rarely performed work of genius.

On a very personal level, the whole evening brought to mind old friend and colleague Jan Fairley who died last year. Jan was a leading expert on Latin American music and would have loved this performance – and no doubt have written about it with her usual brio of knowledge and style.

Like Maria de Buenos Aires, Jan’s spirit still lives amongst us. And it is evenings like this which remind us why music and dance are essential for a civilised life.

Review: Earthy tango from Mr McFall's Chamber
Bachtrack David Smythe
Published 20 May 2013

Mr McFall’s Chamber has a reputation for bringing surprise and delight to audiences, with a track record of unusual and compelling repertoire, often collaborating with both local and international artists. For this one-off concert performance of Astor Piazzolla’s “tango operita” María de Buenos Aires at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, McFall’s forces were augmented with special South American guests to bring us an authentic Argentinian experience.

Piazzolla was a virtuoso of the bandoneón, a special type of concertina used in Argentinian tango ensembles, and in this work the instrument plays a central part. Argentinian bandoneónist Victor Villena, playing the instrument standing up, resting it across a raised thigh, directed the music from the centre of a very busy stage comprising string quartet, piano, double bass, guitar, flute and an extensive array of percussion extending right across the back of the platform.

María de Buenos Aires was written in 1968 with Piazzolla firmly back in the city after a spell studying in Paris. Working with poet Horacio Ferrer, he produced the strange and tragic tale of María, born in the poor suburbs one day “when God was drunk”, and enticed to the city centre by the lure of the tango and the bandoneón. She gets inveigled into the sleazy underworld and dies young, yet her spirit walks the streets in the second act, where there is a rebirth of sorts. 1968, following the Summer of Love, was a famous year of turmoil, the height of the hippies (referenced in the text), and this work is far from straightforward: it is highly conceptual, embraces surrealism, and is narrated by a spirit, El Duende.

The opera was sung in Spanish, but with the libretto problematically dense, there was a wise decision not to use supertitles. Instead, Argentinian filmmaker Géraldine Comte was commissioned to shoot scenes in Buenos Aires over the past few months, and her haunting, often understated sequences introduced us to many aspects of the capital, beginning with a film of a massive traffic intersection showing a busy fourteen-lane route into the city as we took our seats. Buenos Aires became a character in the tale. Occasionally there was text giving us the gist of the story, which was enough to let us concentrate on the performance.

Argentinian tango singer Juanjo Lopez Vidal, complete with black fedora, inhabited the spoken role of El Duende with an almost weary melancholy, and presented María, sung by exiled Chilean Valentina Montoya Martínez, but not before the musicians had introduced us into the captivating soundworld of the busy city, the streets, and tango fragments. Iain Sandilands on percussion was kept very busy throughout, producing a whole array of sounds, from a ringing telephone to the final church bells. María’s lovely theme was introduced on guitar followed by her song “Yo soy Maria”, which was reprised at the end as an encore. Martínez was dressed in black, but with red lace wrist cuffs while she was alive in Act I, replaced with black ones in Act II after her death.

Also on stage was operatic tenor Nicholas Mulroy, who sang almost everyone else, from a Payador (itinerant singer), a Sleepy Buenos Aires Sparrow, a Thief, First Psychoanalyst, to a Voice of that Sunday. He was joined by a spoken chorus representing the city variously as brothel keepers, bricklayers, spaghetti kneaders, not to mention the white coated almost Brechtian Chorus of Psychoanalysts and the Three Drunk Marionettes.

To get a sensible sound balance, singers and band were sensitively miked. Urged on from Vilenna’s bandoneón, the musicians never put a foot wrong in this splendid score, moving from exquisitely tender music to more driven excitement. Everyone had some solo work to do, with special mentions for Alison Mitchell on flute and high, fast piccolo, Su-a-Lee on cello, and tango violinist Cyril Garac. The instrumental numbers where Maria journeyed through the city, live in the first half, and later as a spirit, were particularly effective with the accompanying film really coming into its own.

Apart from getting to grips with the detail of the story, if there was a challenge to this piece, it was the juxtaposition of rough street-performance and the classical/operatic element. The audience sat at candlelit cabaret tables, yet this was only part cabaret, and even then, it was Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, a twist on the traditional with classical and jazz elements: there was a toccata and a fugue as well as plenty of references to the Catholic mass. Nicholas Mulroy’s fine tones were splendid to listen to, yet somehow jarred with the South American earthiness trying to burst out elsewhere. It rather reminded me of opera singers tackling blues numbers (as in Street Scene, and Paul Bunyan), where beautifully sung notes and phrasing from classicially trained voices don’t reflect a perhaps truer blues experience, heard in small hours of the morning in a backstreet downtown club.

Mr McFall’s Chamber successfully brought this difficult-to-perform work to life. The hand-picked players, performers and the particularly successful use of the projection won over a sizeable audience, possibly searching for some South American warmth after what has been a long, cold Edinburgh winter.

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Mr McFall’s Chamber is a registered charity: SC028348

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