There's a moment during this show when the title character pokes her head over a table and, through a bit of legerdemain, spreads her legs about 10 feet wide. It's an instance of wit and wantonness, infused with a riptide of anguish, which is neatly emblematic of this staging.
The work itself is the result of a shotgun wedding between the libertine tango and the more respectable spouse of classical and jazz norms. Officiating at the ceremony was Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Maria de Buenos Aires is his work, along with that of librettist Horacio Ferrer (not that you'd know any of this from the scanty program notes, which mention the duo only once and provide absolutely no context for theatergoers). This tango opera, while enjoying a local premiere, is in fact more than 30 years old.
Jeune Lune's production, full of emotional extremes, suits the material. As usual, the theater's cavernous main space affords room for a highly physical performance; throughout Maria things undulate and shift along with the swooping and suggestive score. There's no story to speak of, only the exploration of a dynamic. Director Dominique Serrand, though, has approached this production with the idea that a dynamic, a mythic image, a type, is a sort of story, and it's from this notion that the opera derives its punch.
Maria herself (played by Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden, splitting the role into a sort of symbiotic duality) is the feminine embodiment of the underclass of Buenos Aires. She's insouciant and defiant, sexy as hell, coarse, and continually pissed off. She's loved and worshipped by the Spirit Poet (Steven Epp and Bradley Greenwald, again split into two parts of a whole), whose artistic and aesthetic hunger for Maria's dark, violent beauty can never be satisfied.
And how, exactly, is that a story? We're getting to that. First, prospective viewers will be happy to know that the show is subtitled, so the dark poetry of the piece can be accessed--Maria, for instance, was born on a day "when God was drunk," so she "has an insult in her voice." And the understated music of the Mandragora Tango Orchestra (led by conductor and accordionist Bob Barnes) nicely tackles Piazzolla's elaborate variations on the tango, lending a sophisticated dynamic range without resorting to overpowering noise. The singing itself isn't spectacular, but doesn't need to be. In this production, emotion trumps technique, and the cast projects a profundity of ideas rather than technical splendor.
The woman that the Spirit Poet finds so fetching--Epp spends much of the evening wearing an expression that could justly be described as stupefied rapture--is not merely the hot mama of the dance hall. Well, she might be, but we see her other side, too. Maria, it turns out, is full to bursting with misery and emotional poison. There's a lot of slapping and spitting in this show, with Baldwin and Peden staring daggers at Epp and Greenwald, contemptuously tossing their adoration back in their faces. She is the city and the spirit of the streets, but to really wrap your mind around that notion is to understand that Maria is the uncompromising spirit of pain and dispossession.
She's also busy dying, being reborn, and wearily consuming cigarettes before the whole thing starts over again. This show taps into a deep vein of melancholy that, had it fallen short, would have quickly lapsed into self-parody. How nice that it doesn't. Instead, it gives us gorgeous music, dark wit, and a tangible sense of the dispossession and agony that gave rise to the plebian expression of the tango. Coupled with Piazzolla and Ferrer's music and words, we get the chance to feel the germ of joy in joylessness, and the realization that at the heart of deepest romance is nothing other than naked despair. Because to hunger for transport and transcendence in the depths of our hearts, we must have become very acquainted indeed with their polar opposites.