Saturday, March 29, 2014

Portland Opera’s “Postcard from Morocco” fashions a deeply hued and ambiguous mosaic

© Cory Weaver /
Portland Opera
With its production of Dominick Argento’s “Postcard from Morocco,” Portland Opera journeyed into semi-surreal territory that amply displayed the rich talents of young artist program – plus a couple of veterans. The show on opening night (March 21st) at the Newmark Theatre explored the colors and textures of this odd gem with intensive singing and acting.  Argento's one-act opera was a fanciful flight even though the seven characters never left the waiting room of a train station. Over a stretch of 90-minutes, they fashioned a mosaic of themselves through highly-evocative soliloquies.

In his introductory comments, the company’s general director, Christopher Mattaliano, remarked that “Postcard from Morocco” was the most-produced American opera. That was surprising, considering the popularity of Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and Floyd’s “Susannah,” but ever since its premiere in 1971 in Minneapolis, “Postcard from Morocco” with its requirements of just seven singers and an orchestra of eight, has been a staple of the nation’s opera stages. For this production, a Portland Opera premiere, the group of mimes that were part of the original concept, were not used and instead incorporated into the actions of the singers.

John Donahue’s poetic libretto names the characters according to the possessions that they carry, such as, Lady with a Hand Mirror, Lady with a Cake Box, and Man with a Cornet Case. Each character is very protective of his or her possession, because it may reveal something. Fortunately, the Man with a Shoe Sample Kit (Alexander Elliott) was a crazy-maker. He would stir things up by taking someone’s cherished item and taunt them a tad. Elliott’s baritone was expansive and engaging in every which way.

As the Lady with a Hand Mirror, soprano Lindsay Russell deftly showed how a mirror could become a shield or even a weapon. Tenor Ryan MacPherson drew fanciful images as the Man with a Paint box. Mezzo Melissa Fajardo held court as a lounge-singer as the Lady with a Hat Box. Despite her young hippie appearance, mezzo Caitlin Mathes, created a creepy moment when she told how her cake box contained her lover. Equally captivating was baritone Ian José Ramirez’s Man with Old Luggage, and bass Deac Guidi’s Man with a Cornet Case. Fajardo, Ramirez, and Elliott are members of the Portland Opera Resident Artist Program, and Mathes is a graduate of the program.

Director Kevin Newbury invented a lot of movement that enhanced the story. The seats in the waiting area were hooked together in such a way that they could easily be moved about to suggest a ship or a wall. At one point the singers reassembled to form the iconic scene from “Titanic” where the woman is at the bow with her arms stretched out and a man behind her.

Argento’s musical style embarked on a journey of its own with parodies of popular song, Viennese operetta, and Wagner (motifs from "Das Rheingold" and "Die Fliegende Holländer"). Even though the music constantly shifted about, conductor William Vendice kept the singers and the orchestra in sync.

Curt Enderle’s scenic design evoked a generic train station with a big “Departures” sign, which signaled the excursions from reality that each character took. Sue Bonde’s contemporary costumes gave the story a current context. MacPherson’s character, for example, had blond dreadlocks and a bulky, world-traveler backpack. Connie Yun’s lighting captured each situation perfectly.

In the final vignette, the Man with the Paint Box imagined himself as the captain of a magical ship, leading his friends on a voyage of exploration through the clouds. It was inspirational, but I’m not sure of what. Perhaps the message of this opera is that we should take time to explore our dreams and aspirations. If you don’t know what they are, then just visit a train or a bus station and see what happens.

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