- Resident Artists
Dominick Argento’s opera Postcard From Morocco is truly a standout this season at Portland Opera. This witty and whimsical production lightened the season after the emotionally gripping tragic operas Salome by Richard Strauss and Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Postcard From Morocco was a joy to watch and highlighted the talents of Portland Opera’s Resident Artists.
Unlike other operas, Postcard from Morocco does not have a plot to follow. The opera takes place in the waiting room of a train station where seven passengers wait with their luggage and a personal item for their departure: Lady with a Hand Mirror, Lady with a Cake Box, Lady with a Hat Box, Man with Old Luggage, Man with a Cornet Case, Man with a Shoe Sample Kit, and Man with a Paint Box. These four men and three women (who have supposedly never met before) try to pass the time with chitchat while snooping into the luggage of the other passengers. Each are eager to talk about themselves superficially, but when asked to open their luggage, they clam up, refusing to reveal anything too intimate. It is not until the end of the opera when the Man with a Paint Box opens his luggage, and reveals a tiny replica of the room in which they are standing.
The music is written beautifully for the voices and the orchestra. Many different musical styles and devices were incorporated to fit the mood of each scene: a duet and waltz, polyrhythms, atonal harmonies, etc. The music was rhythmically complex and the melodies and harmonies were very independent from each other, reflecting the busyness and randomness of a waiting room in a train station. In the Q&A session after the performance, singers Caitlin Mathes (Lady with a Cake Box) and Ian José Ramirez (Man with Old Luggage) said those are two of the biggest challenges of singing a contemporary English opera. Mr. Ramirez said that unlike other productions that he has been in (ie: Lucia di Lammermoor) every melody is completely independent from the other, and he had to have his part mastered before he could sing with the other performers. Contemporary operas are notorious for their difficult rhythms and atonality; and Postcard From Morocco is no exception. Ms. Mathes and Mr. Ramirez said that they both relied on counting each measure to know their entrances, and practiced each phrase extensively in order to know exactly what and when they were to sing.
The singers performed every note and word down to the very last cadenza as written by Argento; however, stage director Kevin Newbury chose to do away with the stage directions originally written in in the score, opting to create new actions for the singers. This allowed for a more organic and unique performance of this particular production. Since the “story” is about seven ordinary people with poetic thoughts and dialogue, it leaves significant room for creative interpretation. The movements in this production were almost cartoon-like in how the characters interacted with each other and moved the stage props about. Within the libretto at times the characters would imagine they were on a ship, and on stage they would rearrange chairs to create a “steamboat” to set sail on. The characters had a child-like playfulness with their interactions and personal items. At the end of the opera, the characters let go of that innocent playfulness when they relinquish their possessions and return to reality. The opera draws to a close when, after the final cadenza, a luggage handlebar rises above the stage, creating the Man with a Paint Box’s suitcase, containing another replica of the stage.
This masterpiece resounds differently with each audience member. So much happened while nothing happened at all: the music was wild and the singers created wonderful stories for their characters, yet all seven characters were simply waiting for a train. Postcard from Morocco has been my favorite production this season by far, and I cannot wait for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance coming soon.