Mr McFall’s Chamber has a reputation for bringing surprise and delight to audiences, with a track record of unusual and compelling repertoire, often collaborating with both local and international artists. For this one-off concert performance of Astor Piazzolla’s “tango operita” María de Buenos Aires at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, McFall’s forces were augmented with special South American guests to bring us an authentic Argentinian experience.

Victor Villena playing bandoneon in Maria de Buenos Aires © Andy Catlin
Victor Villena playing bandoneon in Maria de Buenos Aires
© Andy Catlin

Piazzolla was a virtuoso of the bandoneón, a special type of concertina used in Argentinian tango ensembles, and in this work the instrument plays a central part. Argentinian bandoneónist Victor Villena, playing the instrument standing up, resting it across a raised thigh, directed the music from the centre of a very busy stage comprising string quartet, piano, double bass, guitar, flute and an extensive array of percussion extending right across the back of the platform.

María de Buenos Aires was written in 1968 with Piazzolla firmly back in the city after a spell studying in Paris. Working with poet Horacio Ferrer, he produced the strange and tragic tale of María, born in the poor suburbs one day “when God was drunk”, and enticed to the city centre by the lure of the tango and the bandoneón. She gets inveigled into the sleazy underworld and dies young, yet her spirit walks the streets in the second act, where there is a rebirth of sorts. 1968, following the Summer of Love, was a famous year of turmoil, the height of the hippies (referenced in the text), and this work is far from straightforward: it is highly conceptual, embraces surrealism, and is narrated by a spirit, El Duende.

The opera was sung in Spanish, but with the libretto problematically dense, there was a wise decision not to use supertitles. Instead, Argentinian filmmaker Géraldine Comte was commissioned to shoot scenes in Buenos Aires over the past few months, and her haunting, often understated sequences introduced us to many aspects of the capital, beginning with a film of a massive traffic intersection showing a busy fourteen-lane route into the city as we took our seats. Buenos Aires became a character in the tale. Occasionally there was text giving us the gist of the story, which was enough to let us concentrate on the performance.

Argentinian tango singer Juanjo Lopez Vidal, complete with black fedora, inhabited the spoken role of El Duende with an almost weary melancholy, and presented María, sung by exiled Chilean Valentina Montoya Martínez, but not before the musicians had introduced us into the captivating soundworld of the busy city, the streets, and tango fragments. Iain Sandilands on percussion was kept very busy throughout, producing a whole array of sounds, from a ringing telephone to the final church bells. María’s lovely theme was introduced on guitar followed by her song “Yo soy Maria”, which was reprised at the end as an encore. Martínez was dressed in black, but with red lace wrist cuffs while she was alive in Act I, replaced with black ones in Act II after her death.

Also on stage was operatic tenor Nicholas Mulroy, who sang almost everyone else, from a Payador (itinerant singer), a Sleepy Buenos Aires Sparrow, a Thief, First Psychoanalyst, to a Voice of that Sunday. He was joined by a spoken chorus representing the city variously as brothel keepers, bricklayers, spaghetti kneaders, not to mention the white coated almost Brechtian Chorus of Psychoanalysts and the Three Drunk Marionettes.

To get a sensible sound balance, singers and band were sensitively miked. Urged on from Vilenna’s bandoneón, the musicians never put a foot wrong in this splendid score, moving from exquisitely tender music to more driven excitement. Everyone had some solo work to do, with special mentions for Alison Mitchell on flute and high, fast piccolo, Su-a-Lee on cello, and tango violinist Cyril Garac. The instrumental numbers where Maria journeyed through the city, live in the first half, and later as a spirit, were particularly effective with the accompanying film really coming into its own.

Apart from getting to grips with the detail of the story, if there was a challenge to this piece, it was the juxtaposition of rough street-performance and the classical/operatic element. The audience sat at candlelit cabaret tables, yet this was only part cabaret, and even then, it was Piazzolla’s nuevo tango, a twist on the traditional with classical and jazz elements: there was a toccata and a fugue as well as plenty of references to the Catholic mass. Nicholas Mulroy’s fine tones were splendid to listen to, yet somehow jarred with the South American earthiness trying to burst out elsewhere. It rather reminded me of opera singers tackling blues numbers (as in Street Scene, and Paul Bunyan), where beautifully sung notes and phrasing from classicially trained voices don’t reflect a perhaps truer blues experience, heard in small hours of the morning in a backstreet downtown club.

Mr McFall’s Chamber successfully brought this difficult-to-perform work to life. The hand-picked players, performers and the particularly successful use of the projection won over a sizeable audience, possibly searching for some South American warmth after what has been a long, cold Edinburgh winter.