Maria de Buenos Aires is the only operita , or tango opera, by Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla – considered the greatest composer of tango music. The theatre piece has been staged in a variety of ways since its premiere in 1968, usually with some element of dance as well as singing. The piece features long passages of instrumental music and has achieved a certain cult status, but there are considerable difficulties to staging it effectively – largely because of a surrealist libretto by poet and lyricist Horacio Ferrer. Maria is a woman born under a curse (“on a day when God was drunk”) who moves from the Argentine countryside to Buenos Aires, becomes a prostitute and is murdered. She returns as a shadow, roams the city and gives birth to a girl who may be her own resurrected self – or the reincarnation of Jesus ( Maria de Buenos Aires is peppered with Catholic symbolism). Celebrated choreographer Helen Lai has chosen the piece as her first full-length work in several years. It is a co-production between Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company and the National Kaohsiung Centre for the Arts in Taiwan, where it premiered in September 2021. Lai is famed for her ability to produce works inspired by a wide, eclectic range of sources. Her acclaimed 2015 Soledad, an adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel 100 Years of Solitude, showed an affinity for South American culture which boded well for Maria de Buenos Aires. Dark, surreal and trancelike, Tai Kwun show bordered on the magical Sadly, Lai’s usual empathy for her source material has faltered this time and the production, at Kwai Tsing Theatre in Hong Kong’s New Territories, misses its mark. Despite some powerful moments, it all feels rather sanitised and fails to conjure up the tango underworld of Buenos Aires – sleazy, dark, dangerous and pulsating with violent, sexual life – that lies at the heart of Piazzolla’s opera. This is a piece that calls for a venue that evokes the intimacy of a tango bar. Chen Wei-kuang’s set works well enough but the stage is too big and bare, and the audience too distanced from the performers to create the right atmosphere. Tango is innately associated with rich, sombre colours, and stylist and designer Fan Huai-chih’s monochrome, mostly white, costumes are misjudged. Ferrer’s libretto is intensely surreal in nature. Central to this is that it is written in lunfardo, a 19th-century dialect from the slums of Buenos Aires – earthy, vivid and full of arcane references, its flavour is notoriously hard to convey in translation. Although subtitles are always welcome, having to read a large number of words at high speed makes it difficult to focus on the stage and – when the words themselves are so obscure – they distract rather than enlighten. What on earth are you supposed to make of lines like “we’ll have a tea leaf between our breasts” or “and the dawn was clogged with a feeling of whorish embolism”? Surrealism aside, Maria de Buenos Aires has a strong story. A treatment that tells that story would work better than the non-narrative approach Lai has chosen to adopt. A series of disconnected scenes, with too many solos by too many different dancers, diminishes the overall emotional impact and makes it harder for the audience to engage. The production succeeds most when it comes to the music. The score is performed by a fine group of musicians conducted by Vivian Ip and there is outstanding work from mezzo-soprano Carol Lin in the title role and tenor David Quah as the payador who links things together. Both sing and act with impressive skill, commitment and real passion – Lin’s rendition of the show-stopping I am Maria is a particular high point. Accusation Toccata features a dazzling bandoneon solo from Argentinian Fernando Rezk, who also acts as narrator. The bandoneon (a musical instrument that resulted from the evolution of the concertina) is iconic to tango and was Piazzolla’s own instrument, but frustratingly little use was made of it given the opportunity of Rezk’s presence. Memorable dance moments include some bravura duets that incorporate elements of tango to great effect, notably one featuring the magnificent Qiao Yang (impossible to believe she is now in her late 50s), whose presence lifts every scene she is in. Zelia Tan is also riveting – she is certainly a talent to watch out for in the future – and there is excellent work from Lai Tak-wai and Jacko Ng. The choreographer’s flair for humour makes a welcome appearance in lively group numbers for the psychoanalysts and drunken poet scenes. The final, Pietà-like tableau of Maria holding her daughter in her arms with the shadow Maria looking on makes a stunning ending. Maria de Buenos Aires, City Contemporary Dance Company, Auditorium, Kwai Tsing Theatre. Reviewed: May 13.