As the audience filtered into the Temple of Music and Art Saturday night and sank into the comfy padded seats of the intimate downtown theater, it almost felt like we were cheating on an old beau.
The acoustics seemed crisper — probably because the music had a shorter distance to travel from the stage to the audience — and we felt closer to the action. Even the seats furthest from the stage didn't seem so far.
Yeah, we could get used to this, and that sentiment no doubt was going through the minds of some of the Arizona Opera board members and backers, many donning red — dresses, shirts and ties — at the festive kick off of the inaugural McDougall Arizona Opera Red Series.
Of course, opening the two-event chamber series with Astor Piazzolla's tango operita "Maria de Buenos Aires" — and landing the foremost soprano Catalina Cuervo in the title role — didn't hurt.
Saturday's performance was sold out and Arizona Opera President and General Director Joseph Specter told the audience that there were no seats available for Sunday's 2 p.m. performance.
Which is too bad for anyone who wanted to go; Arizona Opera's production of "Maria de Buenos Aires" was haunting, from the sublime love scene between Cuervo's Maria and the seductive soulfully-voiced baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco's Payador to the subtly horrifying gang rape that sent Maria to the streets of Buenos Aires and a life of prostitution.
And, of course, there's Piazzolla's sultry score, performed by a pretty terrific chamber ensemble under the baton of Conductor Scott Terrell and featuring Grammy-winning bandoneon player Hector del Curto and virtuoso guitarist Colin Davin.
"Maria" is the story of a girl captivated by the tango and seduced by the bandoneon, which brings out her alternating seductive and destructive souls. The heartbeat of the music — along with some evil manipulation from the narrator El Duende (Celeste Lanuza) — drives her into the arms of Payador and to the streets of Buenos Aires.
The story is rooted in the themes of sex, violence, deception and redemption. Cuervo's captivating aria "Yo Soy Maria" brims with promise of adventure before she lands in the crosshairs of the evil and twisted El Duende (Lanuza taking on the speaking role normally performed by a man). Maria is then passed along from man to man; she and the men who abuse her do not see her as a woman but as a piece of property, inanimate and easily discardable.
Except Payador, who tracks her down through the gritty streets of the unforgiving city until he finds her, pregnant and destitute. The baby she is carrying is her ultimate redemption, and El Duende's ultimate prize. But when El Duende demands Payador hand her the bundle of joy, she discovers she's been tricked; the bundle is full of dead flowers, which prompts her to fall to the floor screaming while Maria slowly rocks her newborn in her arms.
Cuervo has performed the role of Maria more than 50 times since her first in 2010 so it's no surprise she inhabits it. But what was surprising was how sultry and bluesy she sounded at the low end of her register to meet Piazzolla's low-note melodies.
She and Orozco had wonderful chemistry, owing in part, no doubt, to the numerous times they've performed the work together. And Lanuza was simply incredible; her El Duende was wonderfully evil and at times humorous and lovable, and her finale when she threw herself on the floor and screamed after discovering dead flowers instead of a baby was priceless.
Also worthy of the audience's ovations Saturday were the trio of featured dancers Laurence Gonzalez, Lester Gonzalez and Stephanie Berg.
"Maria de Buenos Aires" repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 7, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. It is sold out. Next up in the Red Series "Charlie Parker's Yardbird," a jazz opera, Nov. 17 and 18 at the Temple. For tickets and details, visit Arizona Opera.