Chicago Opera Theater

Against the odds, Chicago Opera Theater is completing its 1991 season, with Dominick Argento’s Postcard From Morocco. Though Argento’s name is hardly well known, this is the second of his operas to be produced in Chicago in the last eight months; Lyric Opera did his Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe last fall. Postcard From Morocco is a natural choice for COT for the same reason that it is a favorite on college campuses: with only seven singers and scarcely more instrumentalists, it is comparatively easy to mount. COT’s effort was generally exceptional, but whether the work justifies such an effort is debatable.

Don’t go running to your regular opera reference books for information about Postcard From Morocco. Most of them stop sometime shortly after World War II, and this work didn’t hit the boards till 1971. It is supposedly set in a train station in Morocco in 1914, but the setting is unimportant and really provides nothing more than a catchy title. In fact, the only link to the time before World War I is provided by the costuming. It’s ironic that works whose characters and attitudes are inescapably linked to an earlier time and setting–the Middle Ages, or the Enlightenment–are dragged willy-nilly into the 20th century through inappropriate costumes in the name of a dogmatic eclecticism, while a work that has no special frame of reference and could be plausibly set anywhere in the last 170 years was nailed to a specific time and place.

There is nothing remarkable about the story line of Postcard From Morocco, such as it is. A motley group of travelers alternately entertain and annoy each other with their insecurities. It’s sort of a Waiting for Godot at Union Station.

John Donahue’s libretto is much like dozens of other self-importantly obscure theatrical works that have seen the light of day in the last 40 years. His attempt to divorce characterization from plot leaves us with simple declamation rather than drama. At the end of 100 minutes we know nothing about these characters and care even less.

Among the more amusing holdovers from the 19th century is our habit of invariably referring to an opera as belonging to the composer. In the last century this was understandable, as the composers then seemed to tower over their librettists, assuming they used one at all. And so we have Argento’s Postcard From Morocco, though the work seems more truly Donahue’s. In strong contrast to the score for The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, the music is incidental to the work and seems largely derivative. One hears a little Strauss (Richard, not Johann), a little Stravinsky, a little Holst, some Weill, a bit of Paul Whiteman, and I even fancy a touch of Delibes. I omit Wagner, as I took the “Souvenirs of Bayreuth” sequence as a sort of musical joke, rather like Peter Schickele’s Last Tango in Bayreuth. But it is possible that Argento is simply pulling our legs throughout the score.

Argento is sometimes called a romantic, and the most romantic music of the evening was a little duet between the Lady With a Hand Mirror and the Man With Old Luggage. However it would be much too declasse to draw attention to something that was just pretty music, so director Frank Galati had the pair sing facing upstage while the remaining characters did their best to distract our attention.

Galati obviously put a great deal of work into his direction. But he took his cue from the libretto and that was a bit pretentious. The funny red noses, for example, added the kind of depth to this production that would have been appreciated by my preschooler.

The orchestra and conductor were onstage, which allowed the set to extend out over the pit. The design, by Mary Griswold and John Paoletti, was Spartan yet in accord with the work, though the lack of a backdrop other than the bare bricks of the back wall of the stage also seemed a little too self-consciously artsy. The costuming, also by Griswold and Paoletti, followed the musical score, mixing a couple of dancers from the 20s with the prewar singing characters.

On the musical side, the performance was almost flawless. In the onstage kiosk, conductor Hal France had an easy time controlling his forces in fezzes. Soprano Pamela Hinchman started out a little shrill, but she straightened out after the first few minutes and gave a pleasing performance as the Lady With a Hand Mirror. Her partner in the Straussian number, Mark Calkins, delivered a clear and strong Man With Old Luggage. Eric Johnson–in a ridiculously anachronistic ponytail–used his rain-barrel bass to villainous effect as the annoying Man With a Cornet Case, while a boyish-sounding Matthew Lord brought his clear tenor to the role of the Man With a Paint Box. Mezzo Phyllis Pancella, as the Lady With a Hat Box, was able to strut her stuff before an appreciative audience in a sort of vamp aria, and Richard Rebilas gave a vigorous performance as the somewhat obnoxious Man With a Shoe Sample Kit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.