Florida Grand Opera sizzles with nightclub tango double-bill

By Lawrence Budmen

Catalina Cuervo and Jeremias Masseda in Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires” at The Stage Thursday night in Miami. Photo: Alejandra Serna/FGO

The Miami Design District was the backdrop for Florida Grand Opera’s double bill of Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s Tango and Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, the first in the company’s new “Unexpected Opera in Unexpected Places” series.

It would be difficult to imagine a more unexpected performance space than The Stage, a popular al fresco bar and pop music venue. Still, despite occasional  noise from the street and overhead planes on Thursday night, the cabaret atmosphere seemed a perfect fit for the pop culture-infused mini-operas. The event drew a young, multicultural audience that was highly attentive and clearly involved in the immediacy of the music and drama.

Jose Maria Condemi’s theater in the round production utilized the small stage, covered bar area and large courtyard, the music and action coming from all directions. Erin Turner’s minimalist sets and Camiilla Haith’s extravagant costumes vividly recreated the bustling, dangerous metropolis of Buenos Aires at the heart of Piazzolla’s work. Condemi’s fast-paced staging captured Piazzolla’s tale of sadness and tragedy beneath the dance’s sensual allure. The voices were amplified, yet one microphone failure aside, the electronics were effective without becoming strident.

Rodriguez’s irreverent one-man pastiche features a tenor narrator reading actual news reports of the early tango craze. He also portrays Cardinal Basilio Pompi, Vicar of Rome, who declares the tango a promiscuous sin, and the chairman of the New York City school board, who attempts to reform the tango into a sanitized dance called the Paragon.

The Texas-based composer’s half-hour comedic romp zanily quotes Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, with a theme from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 repeatedly played in Latin dance tempo. Unabashedly entertaining, Rodriguez’s cleverly crafted score even suggests impressionistic harmonies and contemporary rock along with sly period recreations.

Sporting a parade of French, Latin American, British and New England accents, Matthew Newlin was an entertainer par excellence. A strong lyric tenor, Newlin encompassed the dulcet Mozartean melody of the finale and the high tessitura of the Cardinal’s speech without strain. He is definitely a young singer to watch.

Set to a libretto by Argentine poet Horacio Ferrer, Piazzolla’s “operita” (little opera) is a tale of a young woman from the slums of Buenos Aires who is seduced by the tango which leads her to prostitution and eventual death. Condemned to roam an urban netherworld as a shadow tormented by sunlight, she is eventually resurrected and reborn, the symbol of the dance’s enduring survival.

Piazzolla’s music-theater piece is a conflation of the hard-edged sarcasm of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and the fantastic imagery of magic realism, a popular form of Latin American theater and literature.

FGO’s Maria was presented in an abridged 75-minute version that moved between Spanish and English. From the first bars, the music is quintessential Piazzolla, pulsating rhythms and dissonant harmonics in sizzling juxtaposition. Melodies from The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and other Piazzolla works run through the score and elements of jazz and modernist polyrhythms spike Piazzolla’s heady brew.

With a rich soprano and theatrical charisma to burn, Catalina Cuervo embodies the heroine. Sensual and alluring, Cuervo’s raw, sultry timbre and striking theatricality dominate the production. Her chemistry with Luis Alejandro Orozco as the Cantor was magnetic. Orozco’s voluminous baritone and beautiful legato suggest a Verdian in the making.

In the speaking role of the Goblin, Luis Sosa dominates the stage. A Greek chorus of street people offer commentary throughout the drama, voiced strongly by members of the FGO Young Artist Studio. Dancers Jeremias Massera and Mariela Barufaldi embodied the harsh passion and danger as well as elegance of tango.

Ramon Tebar led the ten-piece ensemble  with exuberance and idiomatic flair. Special honors to David Alsina’s masterly bandoneon and Scott Flavin’s sensuous violin solos. Prior to the performance Rebecca Henriques, one of UM Frost Opera Theater’s brightest lights, voiced an alluring tango melody and Carla Jablonski sang “Youkali” from Kurt Weill’s Marie Galante in dusky mezzo tones.

This innovative and arresting double bill bodes well for the regime of new FGO general director Susan T. Danis and should not be missed by opera lovers seeking an alternative to the familiar Verdi-Puccini canon.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Tango and Maria de Buenos Aires 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at The Stage, 170 NE 38 Street in Miami. 800-741-1010; fgo.org.


Matthew Newlin in Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s “Tango,” presented by FGO at The Stage. Photo: Alejandra Serna/FGO

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Fri Mar 22, 2013
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