Deep in the bowels of London’s Waterloo, The Vaults isn’t exactly a typical opera venue. You reach it by walking through a hundred yards of railway arches emblazoned with a riot of street art (it was made famous as a graffiti venue by Banksy), passing the biker convention and the graffiti artists who are adding the latest scenes. For María de Buenos Aires, Astor Piazzolla’s “tango operita,” you wait at the bar until the cast start up something close to a bar brawl before dragging you off through tight tunnels that have been set up for the early evening show that's just finished, the horror show Goosebumps.

© David Karlin
© David Karlin

Inside, you’re immediately seduced by Piazzolla’s unique combination of slow-breathed melody wafting over propulsive rhythmic drive. If you’re a Piazzolla lover, you’re now in for 90 minutes of undiluted intravenous injection of the stuff, performed magnificently by an eleven piece orchestra – essentially jazz combo + string quartet + flute, augmented frequently by the bandoneon of Martin Espindola, who plays Piazzolla himself. That seduction kept me going for the whole length of the show, most of all when Scipio Mosley’ electric guitar came to the fore: Mosley made the melodies sing while keeping such perfect rhythm that you were continually driven forward without any sense of being pushed too hard or frantically. Fran Lombardelli’s jazzy drumming was another key ingredient in the mix.

María de Buenos Aires doesn’t conform to any genre I know. The piece is a mix of songs, vocalises, instrumentals, dance and a lot of spoken poetry in Spanish, done here with extensive surtitles. The setting is the low life of Buenos Aires, María herself is a universal object of desire and a sort of spirit of the tango and the city. She is born, is much loved and fought over, dies, is reborn as a zombie. The words, by the Uruguayan Horacio Ferrer, are poetic, allusive, arcane. I’m going to confess that it’s the kind of poetry that I struggle with at the best of times, and here, the themes are basically surreal, the poetry is in a language that I only half understand and is about an environment of which I know almost nothing. I found it difficult to stop myself trying (and failing) to search for accurate meaning when what was wanted was to allow myself to coast in the beauty of the language. By about half way in, I’d stopped trying to figure out what was supposed to be happening and did let myself flow with the music. The acting and choreography didn’t do much to enlighten or thrill me: to be fair, these were made difficult by the extremely narrow venue, with just a catwalk’s breadth for the actors and dancers to work in.

The bulk of the singing was shared by Clare Ghigo as Maria and Ricardo Panela as Manetti. Ghigo’s voice is uneven across her register, but she has a gorgeous sweet spot in the midrange which was employed to best effect in a couple of vocalise numbers. Panela has a more consistently strong voice in a sort of dark baritone register and was enjoyable throughout the evening. Sergio Jaraiz Lara, as Maria’s husband and the narrator, took on the bulk of the spoken poetry. His voice was beautifully weighted and full of emotion: I just wished I’d understood the words and the story rather better. Naïs Molines’s costumes were suitably gothic, from Manetti and María’s scarlet numbers through to the various zombie outfits as she haunts the streets of Buenos Aires after her death.

I left María de Buenos Aires totally confused and weirded out. But I deeply love Piazzolla’s music, and to get a whole evening of it performed this well – and in the most bizarre of settings – was a treat. And for those with more stamina than me, there was the chance to tango into the small hours to follow...