Yesterday afternoon I was at the second performance of this summer's first Merola Opera production, Dominick Argento's skewed and lively Postcard from Morocco, with a libretto by John Donahue. It's a very entertaining work, and I found it worth the trek out to the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, which has a beautiful oceanside location that is fairly difficult to get to for non-drivers. (I assume the rent on the theater is very low.) I can't complain too much because it was a beautiful day and I enjoyed my long walk. In the opera we have seven travelers who are stuck somewhere, possibly even Morocco, waiting for a train, most likely, that will take them out of there - it may not even matter much to them where they're going.
Each of them carries some sort of box or case; each describes what he or she is carrying, but even items that sound normal - hats, shoes, a hand mirror - grow more fantastical and improbable in the description, often evoking an atmosphere of threat or paranoia (the woman with the hand mirror uses it to keep constant watch on the nooks and crannies around her; the shoe salesman leans in with insinuating and vaguely threatening suggestions). I was actually a bit surprised to read later that the opera is from 1971 because it seems so redolent of a post-war atmosphere, dipped in surrealism and existentialism, of dislocation, menace, masked identity, and absurdist comedy, though indeed the early 1970s were also a time of paranoia and absurdity (and if it comes to that, so is 2012. . . ) . The influences go back even further, though, since I kept feeling that 4 Saints in 3 Acts was an influence or at least an example, not just in the way the libretto was organized but particularly in Argento's music, which, like Thomson's, is clear, bright, and witty, with surprising emotional resonance. And both works incorporate elements of popular styles: marches, dance bands, circus tunes, as well as higher-toned references, though they are often treated in a playful manner.
The opera is one of those works that gains its unity not from plot line but from echoing metaphors and atmosphere. As the seven travelers gradually announce who they are, they self-consciously create themselves as characters, and there are many explicitly theatrical and performance references, including an interlude called Souvenirs de Bayreuth, in which circus acts such as juggling and the twisting of a vaguely obscene-looking pink balloon dog as well as dancing take place to dance-band versions of Wagner tunes such as the Valhalla theme, or the Lohengrin wedding march (for a brief, surreal marriage ceremony that ends with the popping of the pink balloon dog), or the sailors' chorus from The Flying Dutchman (the tale of another doomed traveler, who had earlier been mentioned in passing). One of the women sings into a 1940s style radio microphone, but her lovely voice is singing nonsense syllables. One of the men plays the cornet for weddings and dance bands. Two of the men perform a Punch-and-Judy show, with bright puppets on their head. It turns out the man with the cornet is also a puppeteer, and there are suggestions that the other characters are his puppets. But another man is an artist, and he's set apart a bit, and there are suggestions that it is actually he who is creating the action. The title (it's a postcard, not postcards, from Morocco) hints that there is ultimately only one person sending us greetings here.
We learn a bit more about the artist's past than we do about the others: he's the only one who refers to a childhood memory. He tells us about a vast magical ship that appeared in the sky, moored in the clouds, and he longed to be taken up from the waves of grass onto the ship, but the iceman came by and laughed at him and the ship disappeared, never to return. He has the closest thing to a love duet in the work. A lady with a cake box confesses that her box contains her lover; the artist remembers seeing the two of them outside a church, with the sort of memorable details - her head turning, showing her beautiful smile; her handsome lover dancing in the sun - that might actually be invented, just because they are so perfectly memorable. While the artist describes all this the lady with the cake box denies it all. This love duet between two people who aren't lovers, about a picture-perfect memory that possibly never really happened, is the most rapturously beautiful moment in the opera.
The usual problem with nonlinear, poetic/absurdist/oneiric works like this is of course how and when to end them, since there is no obvious plot climax. Here's where I felt the work fell down at the very end. The artist, in a moment of despair, opens his case (he's the only one to do so) and reveals its emptiness; there's nothing in the artist's little bag of tricks. We hear the same screeching, scream-like steam whistle that we heard at the very beginning coming out of his mouth. It should have ended there. Instead Argento and Donahue went for a sentimental finale, with first a hint that the artist and the woman with the cake box will have a true emotional connection (which I, under the circumstances, found a bit cheeseball) and then the artist sings of rediscovering the magical air ship of his childhood. It's all beautifully sung but dull in a feel-good way that seems false to the world we've entered. The opera is ninety minutes with no intermission, and it's too bad they can't lop off the final ten minutes, which would leave a more satisfying work.
The set is just a few simple benches, with some blown-up photos of sections of a train station hanging behind. The staging was fluid and inventive; director Peter Kazaras has a keen eye for stage pictures, and rearranges his seven singers and a few props in ways that provide constant movement that is psychologically revealing rather than forced. There are striking dance sequences as well as what you might call organized movement (the choreography is by Melecio Estrella). Here I have to single out baritone Joseph Lattanzi, the shoe salesman as well as the second puppeteer in the Punch-and-Judy show, who was not only the best dancer but the most effective overall at moving on stage; I suspect the director realized this, since he was given more dramatic movements than the others - he even juggles, which is especially amusing since he looks a bit like F Scott Fitzgerald, so imagine Fitzgerald juggling some brightly colored balls - and he was always placed in the front in the dance sequences. There is very effective use of light and shadow (Justin Partier is the lighting designer, Nicholas Muni the scenic designer, and Kristi Johnson the costume designer).
In addition to the aforementioned Joseph Lattanzi, the very strong cast also included Aviva Fortunata as the Lady with the Cake Box, Suzanne Rigden as the Lady with the Hand Mirror, Matthew Scollin as the Man with the Cornet Case/the Puppet Maker, Carolyn Sproule as the Lady with a Hat Box, and Andrew Stenson as a Man with Old Luggage (as well as Punch in the puppet show). AJ Glueckert was the artist, and though he had a couple of minor line fluffs he really provided an emotional anchor for the action with an anguished yet warm presence. Mark Morash conducted the orchestra, with Tatiana Freedland on violin, Patricia Heller on viola, Andrew Butler on bass, Mike Corner on clarinet and saxophone, Donald Kennelly on trombone, Paul Psarros on guitar, Sun Ha Yoon on keyboards, and Scott Bleaken on percussion. Not a big band, to produce such a big bright sound.
I was glad Merola chose to do a rarity this year. These young singers will have plenty of Bohemes and Barbieres in their future. The second opera this year is also a bit of a rarity, Mozart's La finta giardiniera. You can catch it August 2 at 8:00 and August 4 at 2:00, also at the Cowell Theater. You can find a link to buy tickets here, though it's a bit buried.