During the four seasons that Scott Terrell has been at the helm of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra, he has exhibited a flair for innovative programming and a knack for bringing in superb talents to collaborate with the orchestra. This weekend, he has outdone himself in presenting something unusual, and very wonderful, to this community: Ástor Piazzollas tango opera María de Buenos Aires.
The innovations surrounding this presentation are many. First, it is being presented in the small black-box theater of the Downtown Arts Center rather than in the relatively mammoth concert hall at the University of Kentuckys Singletary Center for the Arts. Because of this fact, the orchestra is doing four performances rather than its standard one, and even so will present to fewer patrons than usual. (The production runs through Sunday afternoon, with the evening shows already sold out.) I believe this is the first time in the history of the organization that the orchestra has actually produced an opera, and in choosing this particular one, Terrell has delved far outside the standard repertoire.
This short, intense work is a surreal depiction of the hardships endured by a woman in the streets of Argentinas capital city. The story is told in Spanish through a series of scenic actions interspersed with tango dances, by two singers, a narrator and several actors in silent parts. Director/choreographer John de los Santos has staged the nightmarish scenario with fluid and compelling theatrical imagination, and he contributes his own dancing skills to the performance.
The harrowing role of the tragic everywoman María is a tour de force for mezzo soprano Solange Merdinian, who uses her rich, dark voice to belt and croon out Piazzollas beautiful tunes more like a cabaret chanteuse than an opera singer, perfectly in keeping with this musical style. Her ability to put across her songs while suffering myriad indignities and her earthy physical beauty leave a deep and lasting impression.
In the part of the Payador, Marias lover and would-be savior, Luis Alejandro Orozco wields his strong, plangent baritone voice with tender artistry and also cuts a figure of rare physical beauty. His interaction with the utility players, effectively undertaken by Andrew McKinnon, Alexis Slocum and Josh Stone, fairly bristle with dramatic truth. The Narrator (Enrique Andrade) adds a layer of poetry and philosophy to the proceedings, rendered with a chilling blend of understatement and enthusiasm.
And yet, for all the high quality of the stage performers, the most impressive aspect of this presentation is the work of the orchestra itself, drastically pared down to an ensemble of 13, who nevertheless impart a warm, full sound to the challenging score. At Fridays opening-night performance, the rhythmic complexities were held solidly in place by the virtuoso percussion playing of James Campbell, who is finally given a chance to shine fully, playing practically non-stop throughout the opera. His compatriots on the mallet percussion instruments, Brian Mason, and on the percussive piano part, Ryan Shirar, also played brilliantly. The sound of the bandoneon, the traditional Argentine accordion, is intrinsic to the tango, and Ben Bogart performed on it with stylistic authority. Guitarist Richard Goering and concertmaster Daniel Mason also played sensitively, although intonation was an issue for both of them throughout the evening. Flutist Emma Gerstein and a small string section culled from the very best of the Philharmonics ranks filled out the orchestral ensemble.
Terrell led the group with precision and they responded with passion, resulting in one of the best performances yet by the regions premiere arts organization.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.