Portland Opera review: Postcard from Morocco

Ryan MacPherson (l) and the rest of the ensemble cast of Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Ryan MacPherson (l) and the rest of the ensemble cast of Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

by KATIE TAYLOR

For about the first 15 minutes, I was prepared to hate Postcard from Morocco. But thanks mostly to fresh, spontaneous sounding performances, and to composer Dominick Argento’s inability to tolerate writing obscure atonal music for very long, it won me over. You get the strong impression of a composer who wants his performers and his audience to enjoy themselves.

Still, this Postcard didn’t win me to the extent that I now understand why it is so frequently performed. Both musically and as a piece of theater, it feels very dated to its self-consciously cryptic early ‘70s origin — the beginning of the seemingly endless trend in the arts toward throwing something on the stage and expecting the audience to accept it as meaningful even if you haven’t the first idea what you meant by it. I’m willing to climb on board if I receive early evidence that I’m in good hands — that the librettist/playwright/painter, etc. is crazy like a fox rather than lazy like a fox. Librettist John Donahue falls into the lazy camp, Argento into the crazy — and that’s what makes this opera work to the extent that it does.

Portions of the libretto are worthy of Christopher Guest’s film spoof of theater, Waiting for Guffman, notably a number where the train station passengers who make up the show’s ensemble cast, whose actions up to that point made a certain amount of sense for people waiting a long time in a train station, suddenly and for no reason I can see start having a group discussion about building a ship and ultimately settle on a “magical cloud ship” (shudder).

Argento found Donahue’s libretto so incomprehensible that he just cut it up into pieces and rearranged them to suit his idea of the characters. Ultimately, he said he felt the diffuseness of the libretto liberated him to write the kind of music he wanted to write. There is no plot, no development. It’s an opera best enjoyed if you approach it the way you would a music video.

It makes sense, given the era, that Postcard was considered Argento’s breakout opera, the one where he found his voice. It plays with many of the cutting edge compositional toy box items of the day: 12 tone technique; burlesquing well-known classical pieces; deconstruction of traditional forms; crazy, combative sounding percussion; and a small orchestra containing a guitar and a saxophone. In a delightful departure from many of his contemporaries, Argento could not resist doing his damnedest to make any and all of these euphonious. I can imagine a critic of the day feeling delightfully irreverent for climbing on board.

Four decades later, it’s hard not to hear Argento’s score as the promising work of a young composer — like Verdi’s Oberto — interesting mostly for its early signs of coming greatness. It often feels half baked, and despite some moments of wonderful suspense, when it ended, I was ready for it to be over.

Blank Canvas

It’s easy to see why Postcard is popular with directors: it’s virtually a blank canvas. The notes for the original 1971 production reveal that director Kevin Newbury departed substantially from the original “plot” (such as it is) for the Portland Opera production, resulting in a gentler and less heavily allegorical story. In Portland opera’s Postcard, the focus stays on the characters and their quirks and vulnerabilities. The Puppetmaster character who cast a shadow over the proceedings in the original show here is reduced to an afterthought, his brutal manipulation aria reassigned confusingly to the Man with a Cornet Case (baritone Deac Guidi), the rest of whose material has a flavor of the cornered and harassed Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s classic film M — hardly the cool-headed manipulator the song suggests. Likewise, the Lady with the Hat Box and the foreign singer are rolled into a single character (Melissa Fajardo). In this case, the amalgamation works better.

Newbury’s direction was liberally sprinkled with amusing touches. He worked like a navvy to make sense of the storyline, finding unscripted opportunities to show a sense of human connection between the largely self-absorbed characters. The stage action did occasionally fall into the dreaded opera trap where a character pretends not to be able to see something that is clearly in his line of vision, or struggles to grab something it’s obvious he could get if he wasn’t trying not to, but for the most part the action on stage was engaging and lent needed shape to the drama. I’m not sure I was completely on board with the repeated motif of the set itself being trapped inside a suitcase, however — it felt a little forced.

The high point from a musical and dramatic standpoint was former resident artist Caitlin Mathes’s turn as the Lady with a Cake Box, followed by her duet with Ryan MacPherson as the Man with a Paint Box. This was the only time in the performance that I was literally on the edge of my seat with suspense. I wanted to know what was in that box (supposedly her lover). I wanted to know if there really was a lover, if he was gone or imaginary or cremated or what — and why she denied the Man with the Paint Box had seen her with this supposed lover years ago (incidentally, you never do find out — par for the course with Postcard). The fact that tenor MacPherson and mezzo soprano Mathes credibly turned this interaction into a very tender moment — the closest to a genuine emotional connection between characters in the show — is to their credit and to the credit of Newbury’s direction.

MacPherson stole the show as Heurtebise in Portland Opera’s debut production of Philip Glass’s Orphee a few years back and he very nearly stole last night’s performance as well. As it was, he and Mathes ended up neck and neck — a compliment to Mathes’ acting skills, her warm, supple tone and the emotional integrity of her performance of an aria that could have come off as funny if not handled well (hats on again to librettist Donohue, hats off to Argento and Mathes). Mathes’ voice sounds less like a conventional mezzo soprano than like a Falcon — the best-known example of that voice type being Victoria de los Angeles, who had the richness and middle voice strength to carry mezzo roles and also the range to handle many lyric soprano roles. As with de los Angeles, it’s easy to imagine thinking “Ooh — I want to hear that!” upon learning that Mathes had undertaken just about anything, maybe a Charlotte in Werther or a Marguerite in Faust.

I could listen to MacPherson until my feet grew into the floorboards, and that is not a common reaction for me to a tenor voice. His has a little of that baritone richness that adds so much savor to a tenor sound, and his delivery carries the ease and sense of speech. It looked like he was fun to play off of for the other characters as well. Man with a Paint Box is an extremely exposed role vocally — at times, he is the only sound on stage, the orchestra sitting idle in the pit — his music incorporating challenges that on American Idol would prompt raucous cheering. Very nicely done.

Ensemble Excels

Portland Opera's Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Melissa Fajardo seizes the spotlight in Portland Opera’s Postcard from Morocco. Photo: Cory Weaver.

The ensemble cast turned in excellent individual performances, notably the Lady with the Hat Box (mezzo soprano Fajardo) and the Man with the Shoe Sample Kit (baritone Alexander Elliott). Fajardo’s ability to cut through the instrumental ensemble and noisy chaos on stage while singing with great warmth in her low middle register — humming no less! — was very impressive. I enjoyed her lengthy star turn as the Foreign Singer and her cranky insistence on the spotlight. Elliott demonstrates plenty of charisma, a great sense of comic timing and lovely tone. I hope he gets to keep those red shoes.

At first, I had difficulty hearing Ian Jose Ramirez’s tenor voice over the instrumental ensemble, but his solo turn as Man with Old Luggage revealed a pleasantly warm, spinning light tenor sound. Soprano Lindsay Russell and baritone Deac Guidi, both making their Portland Opera debuts, rounded out the ensemble cast as Lady with a Hand Mirror and Man with a Cornet Case with strong, well-sung performances. Guidi’s robust, chocolatey baritone provided welcome depth and heft to a largely lyric ensemble. Russell, a coloratura soprano, produced an easy sound and clear diction (no easy feat) in a relentlessly fiendishly high tessitura.

I was impressed across the board with how effortless all the singers made this material seem. Argento knew how to write for voices, and I could tell how good this music would feel to sing, but it was far from easy — peppered throughout with virtuoso turns for every performer and the kind of dissonances that take confidence and conviction to pull off without sounding labored.

In the pit, conductor William Vendice and his mini-orchestra seemed to be having a rousing good time — again (I’m guessing) the effect of Argento’s benevolence to his performers. This music, with its almost cartoon-like parodies of every music form imaginable, sounded fun to play. Some particularly nice moments were provided by guitarist John Mery and Mark Casperson, who ran the gamut from clarinet to bass clarinet to alto sax. Connie Yun’s truly exceptional, sensitive and varied lighting design really made the unchanging set come alive and provided much-needed contextual changes for scenes.

An opera like this one with its compact ensemble and palm-court orchestra (what they had instead of Muzak back in the olden days) needed the relatively small-scale venue of Portland’s Newmark Theater, but it’s intriguing to imagine one of the old warhorses adapted for a more intimate venue. Carmen anyone? Who wouldn’t want to get closer to her?

Katie Taylor is a Portland-based writer, opera singer, director and librettist. An alumna of San Francisco Opera Center, she is the former general director of Opera Theater Oregon.

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5 Responses.

  1. Oregon ArtsWatch says:

    One of the (many) reasons I liked this production was its theatricality, and what seemed its deliberate open-endedness. That’s a matter of theatrical taste – people can enjoy the obscurity or be put off by it – but for me the libretto offered an intriguing little mind-game to go along with the music. It didn’t bother me that it didn’t make “sense” in a literal way, because I didn’t take it to be kitchen sink drama. This story allows the audience to fill in the blanks with its own interpretations, if it wants to, and that’s an approach that has a long history in the theater. As my son and I were leaving the theater, I commented that the singers might have been sitting around in the waiting room in Purgatory, not knowing yet what their final destination would be. He said he thought each of the singers might be representing one of the seven deadly sins; and he also wondered, given all the musical quoting from Wagner, whether we’d been watching personifications of some of the Norse gods. None of those interpretations is “right”; they’re just tricks the audience plays to complete the story in a way that makes sense personally – and the structure allows for any one of them to “work,” plus, no doubt, several others. The ambiguity can be satisfying or frustrating, depending on the audience member’s point of view. And I thought the story was elegantly streamlined and updated in concert with the design (loved Sue Bonde’s costuming). All of that said, a period piece can age quickly, and I think it’s a tribute to this production that this one holds up so well. Last night I watched a BBC video version of a 1978 “Macbeth” starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, and directed by Trevor Nunn, that was so utterly 1978 it was almost embarrassing. At least, to me.

  2. Oregon ArtsWatch says:

    Sorry. Should add that the particular corner of Oregon Arts Watch making that comment is the Bob Hicks corner.

  3. Katie Taylor says:

    Ahoy the Bob Hicks corner from the Katie Taylor corner!

    Hm…It sounds like the things you and your son liked about the story are more to your credit than to the librettist’s – and that’s my beef with this kind of writing (and a lot of avant garde art in general).

    It’s very possible to enjoy and get something out of the work of someone who has no idea what they’re doing (I myself just enjoyed some attractive slug trails on the sidewalk this morning) — or worse, someone who fully realizes they have marginal talent and inadequate discipline and is cynically hiding behind the notion that their work is too avant garde for feeble human understanding. But I can’t really respect them as artists or give them credit for good work.

    I can appreciate avant garde work from someone who has really good ideas that are best expressed in an unconventional way and who has the discipline to refine them to perfection. The hoariest example of course is Picasso – – he was not painting the way he did because he couldn’t manage representational art – he had ideas that no existing style of art worked as well to convey.

    In pretty much every school of art, there is somebody brilliant and worthwhile – but it’s harder to hide that you can’t write like George Eliot than that you can’t write like William Carlos Williams.

    Having said that, part of identifying good avant garde art has to do, as you say, with how it makes you feel and how you receive it — which makes diagnosing bad avant garde art even trickier. I think the difference is that with strong art, the artist’s intention has a lot of bearing on how you experience their work and why you think it’s good.

    Part of my beef is personal – – I like to think I do good, thoughtful work as a writer and I don’t want someone lazier and less inspired to get the same credit. The process is a lot like varnishing a boat (hm – I seem to be acquiring a nautical theme in this post) – get a good idea (the boat) – apply a layer of varnish – sand it down – apply a layer – sand it down…until you feel like your brain is bleeding and you want to claw holes in the damn boat with your bare hands. What I see today in a lot art (and see in a lot of art from the Dada forward) is that someone will hatch a marginal idea and just put it out there, leaving it to their audience to make sense of it.

    According to the program notes, Argento did the varnishing and sanding his librettist should have done. I really do think he made the best of the material he was given, but it really sounds like the poetry of a high schooler to me – both in choice of phrasing and in subject matter – so there was only so much he could do to fix it.

    Incidentally, I love your son’s Seven Deadly Sins idea – and the Norse gods. :) And I also loved Sue Bonde’s costuming (regret that I forgot to mention).

    Now I am dying to see that ‘Macbeth!’

  4. Oregon ArtsWatch says:

    Katie, this corner of ArtsWatch suggests that if you watch that “Macbeth,” you do it with a shot of Scotch close at hand …

  5. Katie Taylor says:

    Copy that, Bob! Scotch will be procured.

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