Highlights from Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos Aires
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 24, 2019
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA
Cecilia Duarte as Maria
Celeste Lanuza as El Duende
Octavio Moreno as the Payador
J. P. Jofre, bandoneon
Federico Diaz, guitar
Mary Boodell, flute
Diane Pascal and Airi Yoshioka, violins
Vladimir Mendelssohn, viola
Jan Mueller-Szeraws, cello
Pete Spaar, double bass
Heini Kärkkäinen, piano
I-Jen Fang and Brian Smith, percussion
Carsten Schmidt, conductor
Video by Stewart Searle
Used by arrangement with European American Music Distributors Company, U.S. and Canadian agent for Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., publisher and copyright owner.
About the Music
With the rising tide of interest in tango throughout the 1960s, the name of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) spread across the musical world like a storm. Born in Argentina to an Italian immigrant family, Piazzolla actually grew up in New York City. He learned to play the bandonéon (a concertina, similar to an accordion) on the streets and progressed rapidly enough to catch the attention of a prominent bandleader, who invited 13-year-old Astor to go on tour. However, his father refused—ironically the smartest decision he ever made, for the entire band tragically died in a plane crash while on that tour. Astor would go on to become one of the most renowned bandonéon players of all time, frequently playing his own compositions in concert and writing tango-inspired music that forever changed the genre. He even began formal, “classical” composition lessons in an effort to broaden his horizons and transcend the music of his youth. But with sage advice from Nadia Boulanger, Piazzolla accepted tango as his true voice. He combined it with jazz and classical idioms to elevate the rather seedy world of tango to a place among high art. By the time he died in 1992, he had released a hundred albums, composed for over fifty films, and received the kind of accolades he could hardly have dreamed of as a boy.
Given Piazzolla’s lifelong attachment to Argentinian tango, it is not surprising that dance music—and the entire ethos of the nightclub scene—plays a substantial role in so much of his music. Even in larger forms, this spirit hovers all. Perhaps the clearest example is the unique María de Buenos Aires. María is described as a “tango operita” and can be performed with or without staging. Many numbers are set dances even though actual dancers are not required; these pieces work equally well in purely instrumental form. In addition, Piazzolla’s unique scoring warrants a closer look. The text is delivered by three vocalists: Maria’s mezzo soprano, a male singing voice taking various personas, and a narrator known as El Duende—a kind of mischievous hobgoblin who sees all that transpires. The ensemble’s core is built upon Piazzolla’s favored quintet (bandoneon, violin, piano, guitar, and double bass) augmented by additional strings, flute, a second guitar, and percussion. This chamber scoring helps María maintain an intimacy ideally suited to the plot and setting, behind which always stands the vibrancy and shadow of a Buenos Aìres nightclub.
The story, created by poet Horacio Ferrer, centers on the death and afterlife of Maria, a young woman born under the cloud of poverty just outside Buenos Aires. She is drawn to the big city by prospects for money and fame, not to mention a heady dose of tango, and sets out to become a singer. Reality hits hard, however, and she is drawn into prostitution. Her death is plotted by those who would keep her entrapped, and Maria returns after death to roam the city in spirit. In the second part she conceives a child through the word of the poet (El Duende), and—in a macabre modernization of the nativity story—gives birth to a girl also named Maria under the watchful gaze of three construction workers and The Women Who Knead Pasta. In addition to Christian overtones, one can also interpret Maria’s life arc as symbolic of tango’s renaissance. Piazzolla, Ferrer, and others were actively seeking to update the national dance, crafting what is termed “new tango.”
The initial impetus for the María project came not from Piazzolla himself, but rather from the Argentine actress with whom he was having an affair, Egle Martin. At the same time, Piazzolla read a collection of poems recently published by Ferrer, who came aboard to construct a libretto based on Martin’s growing concept. During composition, Piazzolla and Martin split when he asked her husband to divorce her. Soon after, Piazzolla met Amelita Baltar, who would perform the lead at Maria’s premiere and in dozens of subsequent productions. Beyond María, the Piazzolla-Ferrer-Baltar trio created many beloved tango songs and helped the genre achieve worldwide popularity. And for the millions who adore Piazzolla’s musical style, María de Buenos Aires offers abundant confirmation of his unique gift. The music is lush and captivating, the story powerful and gritty, the contrasts wide—in short, an ideal combination from which to build a compelling, modern opera.
© Jason Stell, 2019
Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla composed hundreds of adored tangos, but in the 1960s he also created a remarkable tango-opera, Maria de Buenos Aires. This fugue from Maria shows that Piazzolla's skills far exceeded simply writing dance music.
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