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Fort Worth Opera’s spellbinding “María” achieves new heights

Solange Merdinian sang the title role for FWO in Astor Piazzolla’s “María de Buenos Aires” Friday at Bass Performance Hall (with Ariana Zombar as young María). Photo: Ben Torres

Fort Worth Opera’s ambitious multi-season program to introduce Spanish-language opera to north Texas audiences took a giant leap forward Friday night with María de Buenos Aires, Astor Piazzola’s 1968 “tango opera,” in the first of two scheduled performances at Bass Performance Hall.

Sometimes referred to as a “tango operetta,” the work absolutely deserves the more lofty designation of opera — although labeling María de Buenos Aires something other than opera in the strictest sense has some justification. The accompanying ensemble — including strings, guitar, bandoneon, piano and copious percussion — is based on the traditional tango orchestra. Furthermore, the musical style is based in the popular idiom of the tango, and of the three principal roles, one is mostly spoken, and one is sung in a more popular style.

That said, the serious and highly experimental literary content of the work, as well as the impeccable quality of the music, in which the tango genre takes on monumental proportions, imply that María de Buenos Aires is, indeed, more than just an “operetta.”

Basically, María de Buenos Aires is the gritty tale of the life — and afterlife — of a fictional but representative Argentine woman. Born under the curse of El Duende, an evil, goblin-like spirit, María lives out a brief, violent existence — marginalized as an object of sexual desire but well aware of her powers of seduction. Ultimately, she emerges as a pregnant spirit in Hell, an underworld represented by the violent and tumultuous streets of Buenos Aires. (It’s worth noting that the composer, though born in Argentina, spent his childhood in the slums of lower Manhattan.)

Solange Merdinian, an operatic mezzo-soprano, brought a captivating stage presence to this dramatically challenging title role, in which she transforms from a beautiful woman into a ghostly presence. Vocally, Merdinian moved impressively into the very low range Piazzolla demands here, taking on the smooth, husky quality of a cabaret singer.

Merdinian’s commanding presence was matched by real-life television personality and journalist Gaby Natale’s hair-raising rendition of El Duende, for which the telegenic Natale is transformed into a frightening incarnation of evil. Best of all, Argentine-born Natale, winner of multiple Emmy awards and one of the most prominent figures in North American Spanish-language media, obviously understood how to create a musical quality in her spoken role, and integrate her words seamlessly into the musical tapestry.

Baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco, a native of El Paso, was likewise vocally and dramatically powerful as El Payador, a singer and María’s first love. Orozco brought a rich, resonant quality — along with a lean, handsomely solid presence — to his role.

The production, which originated in a version first produced in San Diego in January, placed the orchestra — with strings drawn from the Fort Worth Symphony — onstage Friday. Conductor Scott Terrell advocated the score winningly, knowing when to linger on Piazzolla’s emotionally intense melodies, and when to push forward with the composer’s throbbing energy, with bandoneonist Juan Pablo Jofre contributing a key instrumental element.

Director and choreographer John de los Santos likewise integrated the spirit and rhythm of the tango not only into the choreographed sequences — featuring three dancers from Texas Ballet Theater — but into the constant motion of the actors. Liliana Duque Pineiro’s scenery, featuring large revolving panels and corrugated metal to evoke the tough urban setting, meshed perfectly with Ingrid Helton’s costumes, integrating every-day realism with fantastic elements, for an overall effect reminiscent of Fellini.

The surrealistic text by Horacio Ferrer, highly charged with constant and sometimes mind-boggling metaphor, leaves gigantic leeway for viewer interpretation. María can be seen as a Christ figure or as a modern day Virgin Mary. Alternatively, her predicament echoes the helplessness of Argentinians under repressive regimes of the sort that governed for much of the 20th Century —which in turn can be viewed as the predicament of humanity in the shadow of relentless fate.

However one chooses to view María de Buenos Aires, Fort Worth Opera’s production is a rediscovery of an ambitious work by one of the last century’s musical geniuses, and a powerful statement on behalf of the rich — and, in North America, generally overlooked — repertory of Spanish-language opera.

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