Peabody Conservatory Presents an Evocative Postcard from Morocco

The ultimate trick in presenting an opera that does not have a specific plot is to attack the work with the same intensity and captivating energy as every other Traviata and Tosca. Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco, premiered in 1971 at the Cedar Village Theater, Minneapolis, MN, is vague by design. It is a collection of emotions and emotionally motivated strangers coming into close contact within the confines of a train station. All the arias are strung together like an anthology of introspective essays suddenly being read in one cohesive torrent. By the end of the 90-minute production the audience comes to the place of surprised awareness that it is not another world they are observing, but a mirror in which they recognize their own doubts, loss, fears, and insecurities.

The snug performance space in Baltimore Theatre Project necessitates an immediate intimacy between audience and performer. Wisely, Jennifer Blades (stage director) encouraged the actors to mingle about the house in character pre-performance. Their interaction with audience members and each other on stage provided much needed character development before the lights officially came up. Lisa Perry as Lady with a Hand Mirror sets the tone of the rest of the show with her energetic and highly neurotic characterization all while producing radiantly astral high notes. The arias throughout the show are static, then emotive; broken, then highly lyrical; moments of brilliance and disarray sprinkled liberally. Argento is described as having the whole world of music as his oyster and demonstrates that by incorporating cabaret, operetta, ragtime, and even Wagner tributes (Souvenirs de Bayreuth) into this work. Full of humor and madness and also madness as humor each character toys with the concept of time – stretching and racing ahead. Where Michael Maliakel as Man with a Shoe Sample Kit zips, teases, and kids about the stage in his shoes aria, Tyler Lee’s (Man with a Paint Box – Mr. Owen) arias are exposed and laid open to the audience’s absolute attention. Lee’s vocal sincerity and fidelity to his character’s brokenness and ultimate transformation was palpable throughout the entire performance.

Postcard is a testament to how awkward people are when traveling in large groups of total strangers. Each character in the opera tenaciously protects, lauds, and eulogizes their luggage. These feelings seemed to resonate with the audience; for we, as Americans, are always aware that our “things” are “us.” Blades related how important it was for each performer to develop their character while working through all the complex music and not as an afterthought. “We asked them to question who they all are and how they interact with each other. This story is mainly about misunderstanding somebody else and going through life so guarded,” she said. It was enthralling to hear the characterization also come out through the vocal and orchestral music. A particularly effective musical section was the hat trio performed by Lisa Perry, Melissa Wimbish, and Elizabeth Kerstein. Perry and Wimbish both with respectively sterling and tender soprano voices remarked that the trio took a lot of focused effort to pull off the intricate rhythms and ensemble work. Yet, the payoff was substantial.

For all the absurdity and comical interactions throughout, Postcard from Morocco is an open invitation to the audience – the opera equivalent to people-watching in the train station. The viewer can see elements of himself in each character and confront the baggage that he carries and guards so stubbornly. Full of excellent 20th century vocal ensemble writing as well as time-bending arias, this production is as valuable to the performers as it is to the audience. “The ultimate defense for this group is to discover a waiting creature vulnerable enough to reveal the real contents of his suitcase.” – John Donahue, librettist and original stage director.

Photos by Edward S. Davis