OperaMark RudioMerola

Postcard from Morocco

OperaMark RudioMerola
The cast of Postcard from Morocco. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Sitting in the Cowell Theatre last night for the Merola Opera Program's production of Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco, I felt alternately flummoxed and intrigued. Flummoxed because I couldn't quite grasp why the word "masterpiece" is so often used in discussing this particular opera, yet intrigued by moments of it that are certainly brilliant, even if the whole left me somewhere in the middle between admiring it and thinking it a failed attempt at operatic postmodernism.

About midway through its long one act I also wondered why Merola chose this particular vehicle, finally concluding the opportunities it provides for seven singers to really strut their stuff trumped a desire to present something more audience-friendly- or at least more coherent. And yet that's not really fair, because director Peter Kazaras delivered something with quite a lot of meat on its bones. It's really just a question of whether or not most will have the palate for it.

Postcard From Morocco finds seven people on a train platform, who are identified by the items they carry in place of a name. There's a Lady with a Hand Mirror, another Lady with a Hat Box, a Man with Shoe Sample Kit, a Man with a Paint Box (whose name is eventually revealed as he becomes the protagonist), etc. Are the everymen? Archetypes? Illusions? Ghosts? Does it matter? It soon become obvious that these characters are theatrical inkblots- you'll see them through your own perspective and everyone will have a different interpretation of what or who they're meant to represent. A plot doesn't exist- the libretto by John Donohue seems like something William S. Burroughs would have concocted from a Paul Bowles story. In its details it's a mess, but the whole still somehow works.

As the assembled would-be travellers gather onstage (they never do board the train), the Man with the paint Box is watching, but he's apart from them, not of them. Suddenly a horribly loud train-whistle screams- and the Man with the Paint Box, turns to the audience and screams along with it, his face twisted into Munch-like agony.

From there Paint Box alternates between interacting with the others and watching them- the line blurs, and as one scene follows another the absurdity of the character's actions and words never gel into something comprehensible. By the time everything stops for an interlude which recalls a visit to the Bayreuth Festival (complete with Wagner excerpts and dancing) it becomes clear the Man with the Paint Box is insane and the people on the platform are either figments of his imagination or what we're watching are the memories (often persecuting) of someone suffering a schizophrenic episode on a train platform. At least that's my take on it.
This gives the performers license to go over the top, and the young Merolini take every advantage to do just that, aided in no small part by Melecio Estrella's well-chosen choreography. They chew up every scene with relish and Argento's score provides each singer with moments to stand-out. Aviva Fortunata, Joseph Lattanzi, Matthew Scollin and Andrew Stenson all acquit themselves well. Suzanne Rigden hit some impossibly high notes dead-on, Carolyn Sproule smolders as A Foreign Singer vocally and visually, and AJ Glueckert as the Man with a Paint Box gives a decidedly nuanced performance. I wish Mark Morash's conducting would have taken greater care to bring out the more romantic elements of the score by slowing things down a bit to create a more hallucinatory sensation, but since the whole thing seemed to constantly totter on the edge of a cliff I can understand why he wanted to keep it all on a speedy track.

The costumes by Kristi Johnson were quite perfect. The lighting design by Justin Partier and Nicholas Muni's set succeeded well at providing a contemporary sheen on its decidedly retro look. In the pit, Sun Ha Yoon's keyboards, Paul Psarros' guitar and the percussion work of Scott Bleaken called attention to the many interesting moments within the score. The Cowell's house chorus of seagulls, offstage as always, were especially vociferous, ensuring there was never a moment of silence.

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