In an interview in the Tucson Weekly a week before the U of A Opera Theater’s first performance of Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco on April 4th, Charles Roe, the program’s artistic director stated that although music director and conductor Thomas Cockrell was convinced that mounting Argento’s surrealistic work would be a good step for the Opera Theater’s next venture into American Opera, Roe’s “first impression wasn’t as positive.” After all, Roe had directed two popular works in the idiom – Mark Adamo’s Little Women and Kerke Mechem’s Tartuffe – productions that were not only enthusiastically received, but artistically on the money. It’s true Argento’s opera is a favorite among many university opera programs, but the opera is filled with numerous musical tangents and vocal lines that keep the singers running up and down the scale throughout the work. Besides that, the orchestra was placed over on stage left, out of the singer’s view of conductor Cockrell. Even with stage monitors helping the performers follow Cockrell as he led them through Argento’s musical mix of Ragtime melodies, waltz tunes popping up here and there, and pieces of Richard Wagner’s Ring thrown in as a tribute to one of Argento’s favorite composers, there was a good chance this production could prove to be risky business.
Whatever the musical and dramatic complexities of Argento’s ninety minute opera were, Roe and his forces met every challenge head on. In fact, one could say, this production was one of the most well-prepared and imaginative outings mounted by the U of A’s Opera Theater.
Opera critics have defined John Donahue’s libretto as absurdist, but its slant is more obscure than improbable. Ironically, the opera’s introduction is quite clear: seven travelers waiting for a train somewhere in Morocco, each with a piece of luggage; the character development, however, does rely on the fanciful. All the travelers’ personalities are established by what they are either carrying in their suitcase or what personal item they may have. For example, the “mirror lady,” has a hand mirror in which she admires herself. The “shoe man” is never without his shoe sample kit, and the lady with a cake box misleads the others by keeping her lover inside. Roe decided to eliminate the character’s trappings by labeling each performer by vocal category thereby concentrating on the internal sensibilities of each character, which not only avoided any distracting stage traffic, but gave Argento’s musical mosaic its full dynamic impact. In contrast to many current opera directors whose theatrical ideas seem to be the only ones permitted to show up on stage, Roe skillfully guided his players into developing their own stage personalities, which allowed them to reach their potential as singing actors and blossom into full blown characterizations.
Kristin Griffeath’s Coloratura-Soprano had just the right touches in expressing her character’s concern for her looks by continually looking into her hand-held mirror while saying things that had no relationship to what was going on in the story. Adam Shelton’s Lyric Tenor portrayed his character’s fear of the unknown with body language that didn’t hide his uneasiness. Baritone Robb Harrison’s shoe salesman had the right mixture of jittery insecurity and pasted on bravado typical of many who work in that business. Mezzo-Soprano Robyn Rocklein’s imaginings as a night club singer-cum-pseudo flamenco dancer demonstrated her character’s wishful thinking for stardom. Bass Nathan Krueger disapproved of his fellow travelers’ detachment from reality only to bring a daffy comic sense to his turn as a puppet maker. Meray Boustani’s Soprano and Dennis Tamblyn’s Tenor were the only two who tried to get a grip on reality, but who could not conceal their heartbreak at not being able to embrace it. All these portrayals were complemented by Adam M. Dill’s 50’s-styled outfits whose muted colors and deftly tailored looks very much personalized Roe’s eccentric band of travelers.
Argento and Donahue also interspersed mimes throughout the story to entertain the travelers, as well as the audience. Roe sought out dancers from the UA School of Dance to expand each character’s personality at various moments in the opera, amusingly choreographed and danced by Lorie Heald and Rick Warmer. Somewhere towards the middle of Postcard, Argento composed a medley of themes culled from Richard Wagner operas with dashes of waltzes and cakewalks thrown in. During this orchestral interlude, dancers Claire Hancock and Nathan Cottam delightfully mimed a couple’s courting and subsequent marriage, in a mixture of robust acrobatics and elegant clowning.
It fell to Cockrell to synthesize all these dramatic and musical elements and ripen them into one artistic ensemble. The music director’s skill at easing his cast into all of Argento’s musical styles which in turn helped the singers deal with the composer’s demanding and sometimes erratic vocal lines, was evident throughout the opera. The cast met almost every vocal challenge and turned in vocal performances that they could be proud of regardless of an occasional vocal smudge or a stretch to reach a high note here or there.
Rounding out the production was Sally Day’s evocative set. Projected on the back wall was a large shot of a typical 19th-century train station with its slender iron structure supporting glass vaults. In front, however, was a ship’s mast with two white sails that were constructed to accompany Argento’s final musical tribute to Wagner using various bits and snatches from his opera The Flying Dutchman. Going from the train station to a sailing ship is just one of the many surrealistic ideas that inhabit Argento’s musical farrago. The sign of an outstanding opera production is giving the audience an operatic moment that it can remember long after it has left the theater. Such a moment came at the end when Dennis Tamblyn’s character rids himself of the anxiety that comes from continually waiting for something meaningful to happen and decides to sail into the unknown with a quiet sense of freedom that Argento wishes for all his travelers.