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SFCM Opera Program boldly explores Argento’s ‘Moroccan’ enigmas

The Portland Opera production of "Postcard from Morocco"
The Portland Opera production of "Postcard from Morocco"
by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the Portland Opera

This season the major production of the Opera Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) is “Postcard from Morocco,” a one-act composition by Dominick Argento setting a libretto by John Donahue. In a departure from tradition, the performances are a co-production with the Portland Opera of a staging by Kevin Newbury. The Portland production ran from March 21 to March 29; and last night the first of four performances (by alternating casts) took place in the SFCM Concert Hall, conducted by Curt Pajer. The instrumental resources consisted of a chamber orchestra of nine players.

“Postcard from Morocco” is an opera that defies description. Structurally, it is a sequence of relatively unrelated episodes involving seven travelers in a waiting room, all unknown to each other. The libretto was inspired by “A Good Play,” one of the poems in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, whose first two stanzas are the following:

We built a ship upon the stairs
All made of the back-bedroom chairs,
And filled it full of sofa pillows
To go a-sailing on the billows.

We took a saw and several nails,
And water in the nursery pails;
And Tom said, “Let us also take
An apple and a slice of cake;”—
Which was enough for Tom and me
To go a-sailing on, till tea.

In one of the early episodes of the opera, two ships get built, very much in the Stevenson spirit. Indeed, in that same spirit, the two ships get built as a result of an argument over the kind of ship it should be; and, in the spirit of that argument, the ships engage in battle.

None of this, however, has anything to do with what could be called plot. Instead, rather as is the case in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, each episode serves to “pass the time” and little else. However, this loosely specified libretto provides generous freedom for the stage director to develop a framework of interpretation. Thus, when Peter Kazaras staged the opera for the Merola Opera Program in July of 2012, he decided that Mr. Owen (the only character with a name) should be the protagonist and that, like John Forbes Nash, Jr. in A Beautiful Mind, he has created all of the other characters from the recesses of his schizophrenic mind.

Newbury seemed more inclined to treat each character as “real,” seven strangers who only interact because they have to do something while waiting for their departing flight. (Argento’s use of a train whistle suggests that the setting is a railway station. However, Newsbury’s set design clearly suggested an airport.) While nothing very much happens in the course of their interactions, there are a few intriguing clues.

One character talks about the puppets he makes, but we never see any of them. A shoe salesman gives a slide show. However, in those images we see him (on a ship) in the company of those same strangers in the waiting room; and the final slide shows the waiting room itself. Mr. Owen is an artist closely guarding a box. When he opens it, it turns out to be a model of that same waiting room. Finally, during the score’s coda, a large handle unfolds above the entire set, suggesting that all we have observed is the content of the box of some parallel gargantuan artist. If Newbury’s staging was “about” anything, it may have been about boxes within boxes within boxes.

This would be consistent with the fact that the music also has a box of its own. Just as there used to be a tradition that every opera must contain a ballet, right in the center of the score, Argento’s opera “contains” a quadrille. Furthermore, that quadrille was inspired by “Souvenirs de Bayreuth: Fantasie en forme de quadrille sur les thèmes favoris de l’ANNEAU DU NIBELUNG de Richard Wagner,” a four-hand piano composition written jointly by Gabriel Fauré and André Messager. Sure enough, Argento goes to town with Wagnerian themes. His references to the Ring cycle never get further than Das Rheingold, but The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin all get thrown into the mix. The whole thing is a delightfully wacky comic relief from trying to puzzle out the enigmatic behavior of those seven strangers.

What are we to make of all of this? Personally, I see nothing wrong with taking the Beckett interpretation, treating the entire opera as a highly diverting means of passing the time. There certainly is never a dull moment in Newbury’s staging, and he never tries to overwhelm his audience with intimations of being overly arty. On the other hand I am also inclined to go along with what is probably the most memorable couplet written by T. S. Eliot:

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.

Just think of it as an opera that evokes Stevenson, Eliot, and Beckett (oh, my!).