Maria de Buenos Aires, Theatre Royal, Norwich

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The Independent Culture

Astor Piazzolla's "tango operita" Maria de Buenos Aires is an electrifying experience. Based on a text by the Argentine poet Horacio Ferrer, it evokes a haunting, nebulous female figure, a fusion of fallen and redeemed, saint and streetwalker, an evocation of the soul of Argentina itself, who roams Buenos Aires' slums, with their birthpains and stench of rutting and death.

Maria almost defies staging, though Gidon Kremer's ensemble has toured a galvanising semi-staging round Europe. Now three UK festivals - Bath, Buxton and Norfolk and Norwich - have cleverly linked up for a UK première, and commissioned John Abulafia, the founder of Mecklenburgh Opera, to serve up a shared staging. It's shiveringly good.

Ferrer evokes seedier Argentina as surely as Lorca does sultry southern Spain or Fellini bourgeois Italy. Indeed the poet himself is the ideal narrator, the Ghost who lovingly and lustingly stalks Maria through town, aghast at her fusion of the pure and sullied.

To point up the plangency and piquancy alike, Abulafia takes a leaf from composer James Macmillan and set Maria (written in 1968) in the time of the "desaparecidos", of the Videla and Galtieri tyrannies, Buenos Aires' equivalent of the Pinochet coup, an era when 30,000 Argentines were murdered. This interpretation works rather well.

Maria, as socially debarred as these junta victims - hurled from helicopters or garrotted after giving birth - is the country's grieving soul, counselling the grandmothers seeking vainly for their offsprings' stolen offspring. The piece is as much about the past, or about timeless redemption, but Abulafia's graphic, forward-thrown 1970s interpretation, horrifyingly evoked both on stage and by rear projections, is excellently perceptive, often mirrored in the text. The downside is that by defining or interpreting the soaring poetry, it also limits it. "Pregnant with death, she dropped dead brats" is given a horrifying context. In fact, it should have none at all.

Wendy Gadian's able ensemble didn't galvanise Piazzolla's tango rhythms quite enough for me; nor was Mandy Demetriou's superbly posed dance element as explosively tangoesque as it might have been. But this was a brilliant show, with three red-clad girl Marias (contrasted dress cuts from designer Isla Shaw) and offsetting boys' trio all magnificent in their sympathetic, doomed and sinister roles.

Julieta Anahi Frias made a melting mezzo Maria, and Sebastien Soules proved outstandingly moving as the Payador, the singer who charts Maria's fortunes. A redeeming experience: catch it if you can.

Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 463362) on 3 & 4 June; Buxton Festival (0845 127 2190) 12 & 22 July

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