The Peabody Chamber Opera presents

Postcard from Morocco

Music by Dominick Argento

Libretto by John Donahue

by arrangement with Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., publisher and copyright owner

Jennifer Blades, stage director

Eileen Cornett, music director

Blair Skinner, conductor

Thom Bumblauskas, set designer

Douglas Nelson, lighting designer

Thursday through Saturday, February 9–11, 2012, at 7:30 PM

Sunday, February 12, 2012, at 3:00 PM

Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore
Admission $25 / Seniors $15 / Students with ID $10
Tickets available from Theatre Project online, or call 410/752–8558

Peabody Opera home

When the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall opened its doors in 1984 in its new incarnation as an opera theatre, Postcard from Morocco, the kaleidoscopic tour de force by Peabody alumnus Dominick Argento, was chosen as the inaugural production. It was a grandiose production in a large space, but its chamber-opera scale may be even more suited to the intimate spaces of Theatre Project. For this is nothing if not pure theatre: a handful of people onstage, naked except for the roles they hide behind and the costumes they wear, indulging in puppetry, slapstick, dance, operetta, and improv, all as means of protecting themselves from the real world. The piece requires an audience who will indulge in the theatrical games-playing with them, while at the same time weeping at the need for it.

The composer addresses the 1984 cast
The composer addresses the cast in 1984

Argento’s opera (the fifth that he still acknowledges) was premiered in Minneapolis in 1971. Unlike a normal opera libretto, the brilliant text by John Donahue (primarily a children’s theatre director), provides a variety of lines and acting situations, but does not specify the characters or a linear plot. The action in many ways seems improvized, with abstract music alternating with popular styles, solo arias giving way to seemingly random ensembles, and little verbal exchanges coming apparently out of nowhere. But Argento has given it a strong structure, leading to an emotional climax that is a heart-breaking as it is stirring.

Old luggage labels

Let John Donahue describe the setting: “The scene must present a distinctly off or odd angle as indeed the whole of the piece must, but not morbid or peculiar so much as wacky or exotic, sometimes romantic and also like a memory (1914), like an old postcard from a foreign land showing a railway station in Morocco or someplace, hot, strange, etc., but then translated through the eyes of a designer into a semi-cartoon-like atmosphere. The railway station should also be like the interior of a glass-covered pavillion or conservatory, restaurant, waiting area, spa.”

Clock at Gare d'Orsay

The cast consists of a number of travelers, divided between the seven singers, a number of mimes, and cardboard figures or mannequins moving about on wheels. The singers are designated only in terms of what they carry: a hand-mirror in a purse, a cake-box, a hat-box, a paint-box, a cornet case, a shoe-sample kit, and a load of old luggage. Each has something to hide; in their various arias, they will appear to reveal something about themselves, but refuse to open their cases when asked to do so. The opera begins in cacophony and keeps moving into ensembles when all sing at cross-purposes. The only attempt at a real duet (other than a marvelous parody of a Vienesse operetta love song) ends with the woman denying all memory of having met the man before. Immediately after, Mr. Owen, the tenor who had tried to establish some contact, recounts a childhood dream as though to a therapist; Argento’s haunting tune, like a ballad or sea-shanty, is more than matched by Donahue’s poetic words:

Once, when I was a young man,
I imagined I saw
a magical sailing vessel.
It floated by my bedroom window,
resting in the branches of the trees,
anchoring by a steeple,
washing shallow in a port of clouds…

Not only does Mr. Owen reveal more of his true vulnerable self than any of the others, he is also the only one to open his case. It is empty. The others laugh at him before going back to their solipsistic chatter. When the whistle of the train blows and they all go off presumably to catch it, Mr. Owen is left alone. But he and his boat have one journey that the others will never make….

Old luggage labels

The Peabody Chamber Opera performances include some of the most experienced singers in the program; their names are listed below. The production is in the hands of the same team that brought Remember the Fifties to Theatre Project last year: director Jennifer Blades, conductor Blair Skinner, and designer Thom Bumblauskas, already well-known to Baltimore audiences for his work with Opera Vivente. Bumblauskas has gone beyond the palm-court imagery such as seen on this page, to draw inspiration from the hot emptiness and long shadows of the paintings of Giorgio Di Chirico, whose surrealism and off-kilter perspectives are very much in accord with the “off angles” prescribed by the librettist.

Giorgio Di Chirico       Giorgio Di Chirico

Principal Singers

Passing the cursor over singer’s names will show
some previous roles at Peabody.
Lady with a Hand Mirror   Lisa Perry
Lady with a Cake Box   Melissa Wimbish
Lady with a Hat Box   Elizabeth Kerstein
Man with a Old Luggage   Halim Shon
Man with a Paint Box   Tyler Lee
Man with a Shoe Sample Kit  Michael Maliakel
Man with a Cornet Case  Jeffrey Martin
Mimes  Joseph Harrell
Justine Moral