Buenos Aires to Bucharest: Piazzolla’s Maria Travels through the Ages

Maria Zărnescu*

Maria de Buenos Aires. Music: Astor Piazzolla. Book: Horacio Ferrer. Translated by Albert Denn. Lyrics: Alex Ștefănescu. Direction, choreography and costumes: Răzvan Mazilu. Set: Dragoș Buhagiar. Lighting design: Ștefan Vasilescu. Cast: Ana Bianca Popescu (Maria), Gheorghe Visu (The Spirit), Lucian Ionescu (The organ-grinder, The dreamer, The old thief, The first analyst, The priest) and Emy Drăgoi on accordion. The chorus: Bogdan Iacob, Andrei Mărcuță, George Vasile. Conductor: Mihai Murariu. The orchestra: Mihai Murariu (piano); Ioana Văleanu (percussion); Cristina Hîrjanu (flute); Diana Ciudin (1st violin); Bianca Drăgoi (2nd violin); Alessia Drăgoi (3rd violin); Larisa Retegan (viola); Mihail Grigore (cello); Iacob Artin Panighiant (double bass). Stage premiere: February 2021 at Teatrelli, Bucharest, Romania.

Buenos Aires as a twilight zone: set by Dragoş Buhagiar. Photo: Dragoș Trăistaru și Romana Țopescu

“Tango does not exist anymore,” the composer Astor Piazzolla once said. “It did once, at a time when Buenos Aires was a place where people were wearing the tango, walking the tango, when the fragrance of tango was all over the city. . . .” Born in Argentina to parents of Italian descent, Piazolla revolutionized the traditional tango. He added elements of jazz and classical music, creating a new style in continuous evolution—nuevo tango. He extended the boundaries of this kind of dance: the art of composition, the vocal and the instrumental scores, the libretto and the lyrics joined the original choreography. Aware of the power of words, the avant-garde artist Piazzolla was to win over the Uruguayan Horacio Ferrer, a poet and musician, who had joined the tango world somewhat later. Determined to create new lyrics (at a time when all of them seemed to have been already written), Ferrer was reluctant to produce direct or dull texts (an obstinacy for which any artist will pay a price . . .) He would thus create his own voice in tango and write a book that alternates surrealism and magic realism for the “operita” Maria de Buenos Aires, to accompany Astor Piazzolla’s music.

Haunted by the Spirit of a blind poet (Gheorghe Visu), Maria (Ana Bianca Popescu) dedicates her life to love. Photo: Andrei Gîndac

Its premiere took place back in 1968, in Argentina’s capital itself, but the operita is still rarely staged worldwide—few directors have dared to approach the libretto. In spite of this, I’ve had the luck to see Maria de Buenos Aires in Romania three times. This latest revival showcases a team of well-known characters from the country’s arts world. Top of the list is Răzvan Mazilu, with a career of more than two decades in dance, choreography and directing musical shows. He was a frequent pioneer in this area of show business, just like a settler creating the basics of life in an uninhabited territory. He bravely approached various forms: contemporary dance, dance-theatre, cabaret, opera. In recent years, he has dedicated himself tenaciously to the musical, a genre which, according to his own confession, fascinates and best represents him. Proof of this are the dozens of productions in which, on the one hand, he complied with the “recipe” of the process, without useless theatricals determined by vanity or by ignorance of the specific mechanisms, and, on the other hand, he put to work his own creativity and imagination, untroubled by the “spectacularity” of the genre.

Ana Bianca Popescu and Lucian Ionescu: a passionate tango, choreographed by Daniel Măndiţă. Photo: Andrei Gîndac

We find him now as director, choreographer and creator of the exciting costumes for Maria de Buenos Aires, a show which makes you feel privileged to witness it. Teatrelli, a small artistic café in uptown Bucharest, has undergone a makeover by Dragoş Buhagiar, the most acclaimed Romanian set designer. The hall becomes the playing space, the stage a platform for the musicians, while the audience is placed in a circle, becoming part of the story. This is not an interactive show—not at all—but the redesigned venue and the COVID distancing measures have cut the number of spectators to only forty. The ambiance is intimate: you sit on a miscellaneous collection of old chairs that are part of the setting, you may drink tango at your table, from a choice of cocktails carrying the names of songs. In the beginning, you are wrapped in a haze of white veils, which will later reveal fragments of a decadent and bustling city of the 1920s. The director confesses:

I have not yet been to Buenos Aires . . . So I imagined a city made up of all the known clichés and commonplaces, which I dynamited and turned inside out . . . A Buenos Aires inspired by readings from García Márquez and Borges. A Buenos Aires inspired by Piazzolla’s music, listened to on repeat. By the overwhelming voices of Carlos Gardel or Julio Sosa. By the movies of Carlos Saura and Sally Potter.

Ana Bianca Popescu as Maria de Buenos Aires: a portrait of remembrance. Photo: Andrei Gîndac

In the centre of the small arena, one finds the most eloquent symbol: the bed. But it has a broken leg and everything around seems to be falling apart, including the Persian carpets on the floor. Three chandeliers and a few lamp posts throw a diffused light to give you a dimmed view of the action.

This is the strange story of a certain Maria, who, like all the women-Marias (biblical or not), is going through her various destinies: virgin, sinner, lover, mother. Born under an unlucky star, “one day when God was drunk,” young Maria will run away from home, will prostitute herself for survival, will love and die in a ruthless Buenos Aires. When born a second time, the Shadow of Maria will come back to the streets of the city with which she identifies herself, singing the tune of the yet-to-be-written, most heart-breaking tango, until her final deliverance.

Lucian Ionescu as a flamboyant character: an explosion of fantasy in the costumes created by Răzvan Mazilu. Photo: Andrei Gîndac

The young actress Ana Bianca Popescu is a true incarnation of the character, with beauty and charisma, a remarkable voice and a native sensuality in her movements. Her hair and her dress are red as sin, yet her purity makes its way through her whole being. The surreal story is told in an almost monotonous, abrupt way, with a special voice, abrasive yet very musical, by a wandering Spirit, played by Gheorghe Visu, a famous Romanian theatre and television actor. The director took his inspiration in designing the character from a picture of Borges, almost blind and leaning melancholically on a cane.

The accordionist Emy Drăgoi and the actor Gheorge Visu: a dialogue between music and words. Photo: Andrei Gîndac

In her journey through the ages, Maria is accompanied by other terrestrial characters—an Organ-grinder, a Dreamer, an Old man, an Analyst and, finally, a Priest—all played with ease, mobility and a warm, caressing voice by the young Lucian Ionescu. It is an exceptional cast: all three actors (from two generations) are holders of various awards from the Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER.

The show flows like a poem to Piazzolla’s music, with solo arias and choir, backed by a well assembled and well conducted small orchestra. When you say Buenos Aires, you say tango; when you say tango, you say Piazzolla. But who could play live and convey the energy and the romanticism of his music? A very inspired choice, the experienced accordionist Emy Drăgoi has spent years in France, where he often played jazz manouche, and in this spectacle he shows lightness and authenticity. At the end, as a bonus, abandoning the strictness of the libretto, he offers, together with his band, a small instrumental recital of absolute virtuosity, to the delight of the spectators enjoying the privilege of being part of this happy festivity at Teatrelli, in Bucharest.

An end is a beginning: Gheorghe Visu, Ana Bianca Popescu, and Lucian Ionescu (L-R). Photo: Andrei Gîndac

“Abandon all hope, ye who . . .” seek realism in theatre. Maria de Buenos Aires will descend into the Inferno, then roam through Purgatory, in order to finally reach Paradise. In her journey, she will be accompanied by an audience that may be surprised to discover a different kind of story. But once the charm of the music and the lyrics makes its way through, together with the magic of the acting and the musical interpretation, a rich emotional experience will be their well-deserved reward. 

*Maria Zărnescu, PhD (b. 1969, Bucharest) is a Romanian theatre theorist and critic, Associate Professor at the National University of Theatrical Arts and Cinematography “I.L. Caragiale” Bucharest. Author of books: Music and Muses (2015) and The Sound of Theatre Music (2016). Theatrical and musical reviews, studies and essays published in Romanian and international journals. The Romanian Association of Theatre Professionals UNITER Award for “Best Theatre Critic”in 2015.

Copyright © 2021 Maria Zărnescu
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