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Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921-1992)
María de Buenos Aires – Tango operita in two parts with lyrics by Horacio Ferrer (1968)
Valentina Montoya Martinez (soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Juanjo Lopez Vidal (narrator)
Mr McFall’s Chamber / Victor Villena (bandoneon)
rec. 2016, The Tom Fleming Centre, Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools, Edinburgh
Texts and translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34186 [44:27 + 43:45]

For the last two decades and more, the estimable (and exquisitely named) Mr McFall’s Chamber have been acquiring a formidable and deserved reputation in Scotland and beyond for adventurous programming, the promotion of music of many hues, styles and eras, and for razor-sharp performance. They have done enormous good for new British music in terms of commissioning and recording new works. One of the enduring threads throughout their existence has been an association with the tango, and by definition with the music of Astor Piazzolla. This engagement has now arguably reached its apogee with this glittering issue of the master’s self-styled “operita” Maria de Buenos Aires, recorded after a series of successful live performances. Delphian are to be congratulated without delay for the entire package. Beautifully designed and presented, the booklets (extravagantly one for each “Act”!) present the full libretto with a new translation by Ann McFall—in itself necessary but here characterised by economy and wit. Robert McFall’s introductory notes are worthy of an award in themselves. A model of clarity, they address the history of the work, its political context, its myriad influences. Most interesting of all, they offer a balanced and well-researched consideration of what this work actually is, and what it is not. They do what notes often set out to do (but seldom actually succeed in doing). They help unravel a work that is at times bewilderingly complicated—and I thoroughly enjoyed this interpretation all the more for it.

I first tried to get my head around the piece in the late nineties when Gidon Kremer’s Kremerata Musica recorded it on Teldec with smaller forces (in an arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov)—coincidentally, this is slated for imminent reissue by Warners. While I enjoyed some of the music, notably the contributions of the sultry-toned Julia Zenko as Maria and the authentic, world-weary narration of Piazzolla’s collaborator Horacio Ferrer, it was issued at a moment when tango in general and Piazzolla in particular were enjoying a huge renaissance. Frankly, this music was everywhere at the time, and so the experience rather washed over me, alas. Fast forward a couple of decades and this glossy Delphian production—together with a little bit more “homework” on my part—has affected me altogether differently.

So what did Piazzolla and Ferrer mean by the term “operita”? Robert McFall’s notes place it squarely within the cultural context of 1968, the year of international student protests in support of civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, the first examples of concept albums and rock-operas, and marked in Argentina by the repressive rule of a military junta. It is not simply a “little opera”. Piazzolla is recalled by Ferrer as stating:

What is this thing? I haven’t a clue! On the one hand it’s a bit like an oratorio; on the other a bit like a cantata – but it’s neither one nor the other- nor for that matter is it a musical; even less an opera.
The two of them settled on the hybrid word operita, a “small work”. Although it lasts around an hour and a half, the forces are small: an eleven-piece band (brilliantly led by here by the bandoneonist Victor Villena), a female and male singer (the latter takes on four roles) and a small speaking chorus. McFall claims that, if anything, the work has something in common with West Side Story and The Threepenny Opera, but the link seems a little tenuous and more to do with the kinds of ne’er-do-wells and lowlifes who largely populate the narrative. In his libretto, Ferrer makes reference to some of the international 1960s phenomena that offended the regime (The Beatles and hippies, inter alia) but the sense of protest is pretty restrained, even though the plot is not. Briefly the story involves the ill-starred Maria being drawn to the bright lights of the city by the sound of the tango, where she falls in with bad types and becomes a prostitiute. She meets her death and is condemned to hell (Buenos Aires itself). Thereafter her now virginal shadow haunts the city streets—and ultimately in an allusion to the Nativity she gives birth to a version of herself. Obviously the story is sad and the tango is dark but there is humour and satire aplenty, chinks of light to illuminate the shadows, bursts of energy to leaven the world-weariness.

Is this recording (recorded in a studio at a school in Edinburgh…) truly “dirty” enough, does it capture the grubbiness of the tango, and specifically of this work? I anticipate that some will find the present recording rather too smooth round the edges, although I certainly did not. In fact, I found the sheen of the sound oddly appropriate. It certainly allows one to pick out the felicities of Piazzolla’s superb original orchestration, especially the wondrous percussion. In this reading the devil is certainly in the details. And I think the qualities of all the voices on these discs quickly dispel any doubts about sanitisation.

The wonderful Chilean-born Valentina Montoya Martinez could have been born to play Maria. She captures the eponymous heroine’s extremes of strength and vulnerability, her feistiness and sensuality in a reading of great subtlety and perception. Her delivery of the wonderful Yo soy Maria in Part One (if this was a rock opera, I feel sure this would have been the single) reveals her fearlessness and fragilility in four minutes of perfection. As Part One proceeds, Martinez conveys the inevitability of Maria’s fate with a measured insouciance that convinces at all levels.

Her turn is matched absolutely by that of Nicholas Mulroy, a tenor arguably best known for his superb Handel and Bach recordings with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort on Linn. He is also an accomplished recitalist, and a native of Liverpool—although in this performance one could be forgiven for believing he was La Plata born-and-bred. On the face of it, Piazzolla might seem a very different proposition from the Baroque but in common with other Latin American composers (notably Villa-Lobos) he liberally used forms such as aria, toccata and fugue. Either way Mulroy’s efforts throughout are superbly idiomatic: sad and suave and sexy.

The important narrating role of the Duende is taken by Juanjo Lopez Vidal. His is a smoky, earthy voice which becomes more impassioned as his involvement teeters between the roles of storyteller and participant. But to my mind the real star of the show is the director Victor Villena, bandoneonist extraordinaire. One is almost persuaded that his instrument is a real human character, its ability to sing and shout and cry almost palpable. Essentially the bandoneon is the siren character that lures Maria to her inevitable destruction and accompanies her unlikely resurrection. Villena’s playing is magnificent, and his direction of the superb instrumental and vocal forces truly inspired. Add to this a splendidly detailed and atmospheric recording, and one can scarcely imagine hearing one of Piazzolla’s most ambitious works in a more favourable or sympathetic light.

Richard Hanlon

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