Thursday 1 September 2016

Completely wonderful, but we hadn't the slightest idea what was going on

Catarina Sereno, Operaview and Deco Ensemble - Maria de Buenos Aires - photo Michael Ahrain
Catarina Sereno, Operaview and Deco Ensemble - Maria de Buenos Aires - photo Michael Ahrain
Piazzolla Maria de Buenos Aires;Catarina Sereno, Ian Helm, Matthew Wade, Bianca Vrcan, Sacha El Masry, Natalie Katsou, Ricardo Gosalbo; Operaview & Deco Ensemble at the Grimeborn Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 31 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A trip to the seamy side with style, Piazzolla's tango operita Maria de Buenos Aires

Astor Piazzolla's tango operita made its appearance at the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre (31 August 2016) in a collaboration between Operaview (artistic director Natalie Katsou) and the Deco Ensemble, a tango quintet directed by Ricardo Gosalbo. Natalie Katsou directed, with choreography by Bianca Vrcan, sets by Jemima Robinson, costumes by Kate Royds, and lighting by Rob Youngson. The cast included Catarina Sereno as Maria de Buenos Aires, Ian Helm in the baritone roles, Matthew Wade as Duende, Meliz Taylor as little Maria and the dancers Bianca Vrcan and Sacha El Masry. Ricardo Gosalbo directed the Deco Ensemble from the piano with Lucia Veintimilla (violin), Elena Marigomez (double bass), Bartosz Glowacki (accordion) and Rob Luft (electric guitar).

Jemima Robinson's striking set consisted of a painted floor-cloth and innumerable red shoes hanging from the ceiling. The theme of red was picked up in Kate Royds' costumes with everyone (singers, dancers, musicians) being costumed in red and black (with a superb selection of red shoes, on both the men and women). Performed in the round, the audience on three sides and the tango ensemble as a striking backdrop. The piece was performed with Horacio Ferrer's text in a translation by Denise Moreno and Natalie Katsou, which was also projected onto the walls.

The piece has rather a surrealistic element to it, with a heavy admixture of dance, and Katsou's stylised production played up the non-realistic element. Luckily places, and names, were included in the surtitles, especially necessary in the case of the baritone role (admirably played by Ian Helm) who incarnated quite a number of characters. The only unsuccessful element was having the choruses spoken on a sound track as this seemed upset the balance somewhat.

The instrumental quintet got things off to a superb start, both looking and sounding sharp and throughout the evening it was the quality of the instrumental contributions which really lifted the performance as Gosalbo and his ensemble brought out the steaminess and intensity of Piazzolla's tango nuevo whilst keep the rhythms crisp and vivid. The Deco Ensemble is a well established tango quintet and certainly worth looking out for.

The work was in a series of short, dare I say disconnected, scenes with a heavy admixture of instrumental and dance numbers giving it quite a leisurely feel; the work is certainly about far more than just singing. The libretto is highly poetic and there were times when it was difficult to apprehend the exact meaning. Though we had the text of the sung passages, these passed very quickly, and the spoken sections were often difficult to apprehend. You felt that instead of using a literal translation for the surtitles we should have been given a brief summary.

Matthew Wade was impressive as the Duende, here not crippled but a sort of demented black angel, speaking his poetry with magical tones and extremely physical in his performance. The whole production blurred the boundaries, as singers danced, instrumentalists sang, creating a synthesis of the whole. Bianca Vrcan and Sacha El Masry were wonderfully sexy as the two dancers, finely in tune with each other and creating an evocative backdrop in the scenes. They run their own tango school Rojo y Negro so were, not surprisingly, completely at ease with the tango style.

Catarina Sereno was poised and elegant in the challenging role of Maria, charting the character's path through the sex and violence laden underworld, before dying (half way through the piece). For the second half she played the shadow Maria, mysterious and exotic, finally being almost incarnated as the Virgin. Ian Helm was engaging in the multiple baritone roles. He sang with a finely focussed and lovely dark tone, though we sometimes had to rely on the surtitles to know he was playing a different character. Meliz Taylor is just 11 but gave an astoundingly poised performance as little Maria, joining in the complex ensemble choreography with striking skill.

I did feel that lasting over 90 minutes was a bit too much and that the performance could have done with trimming somewhat to make it tighter and more intense. At the end of the evening we both commented that the performance was completely wonderful, but we hadn't the slightest idea what was going on!

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