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SJOG Travelers

Unique 20th century opera brings a rarity to Bay area and a resounding Merola success
By Mort Levine

If you wanted to test the outer limits of opera’s creativity, you should have gone a short trip north to San Francisco’s Cowell Theatre at Fort Mason to catch one of the two performances of Dominick Argento’s semi-surreal 1971 work Postcard from Morocco. The 90-minute one act showcases seven singeractors in some extremely difficult arias and ensemble numbers. The composer brings together a wide assortment of styles and textures that mirror the changing moods of the absurdist plot.

Written to a libretto by John Donahue, the setting implies an old fashion grand railway station which is typically featured in postcards sent by tourists. None of the four men and three women know each other, and, while they share slivers of biography of themselves, the audience is left to fill in a lot of blanks such as where are they going and why each is carrying some kind of prop. All seven are assigned a common item although only one of the characters is named.

The young singers from SF Opera’s Merola program will also be performing Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera at the Cowell Theatre on August 2 at 8 p.m. and August 4 at 2 p.m. These performances will be followed with the annual Merola Grand Finale at the opera house on August 18 at 7:30 p.m.

The composer is a careful operatic craftsman with more than a dozen works to his credit. The Aspern Papers based on a Henry James novella may be his most successful. An upcoming performance at Dallas opera is scheduled. Another Argento one-act, A Water Bird Talk was given some years back by San José State‘s opera workshop.

In Postcard, the masterful Argento touch is evident in a centerpiece of the show labeled a "Souvenir of Bayreuth" in which singers and the eight piece orchestra under Merola music director Mark Morash quotes and parodies Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Other musical flights include a operetta singer’s torch song to an absent lover, sung by Soprano Aviva Fortunato while twirling a very long bright red sash.

There are some creative dance touches as well, proving the singers’ versatility.

Tenor A. J. Glueckert provides a poignant portrayal of an unfulfilled artist, always tightly clutching a painter’s box. When pressed to show the brushes and tubes of paint, he finally opens the box to reveal it contains nothing. His role is one which encapsulates the pathetic longing which marks all of the opera. He concludes it by telling of the boyhood fantasies of having a naval fleet sailing on a staircase at his command.

The articles the other singers possess also seem to reveal an emptiness in their lives. Bass-baritone Matthew Scolin totes a cornetcase but admits he can’t play. A traveling salesman swaggeringly sung by Baritone Joseph Lattanzi carries a large suitcase with shoe samples each in a pocket of velvet or fuzz.

The high soprano of Susan Rigden who sings "a lady with a bad mirror" in an atonal aria which sets an early mood, but the composer’s tonal lyricism provides a sharp contrast. This is evident as mezzo soprano Carolyn Sproule talks about the hatbox and sings of the hats made for movie stars. Tenor Andrew Stenson portrayed a puppeteer as well as doubling as the sad man with old luggage, because it doesn’t pay to buy new luggage for a trip.

An epigraph is attached to the score of the opera quoting two lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. One is "we built a ship upon the stairs," and the other is "But Tom fell out and hurt his knee, So there was no one left but me." Even though the libretto lines convey the underlying sadness and terror, it is the music that really spins out the magic of The Postcard from Morocco.

(SJOG Newsletter August, 2012)

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