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S & H Opera Review

DOMINICK ARGENTO POSTCARD FROM MOROCCO Guildhall School of Music & Drama 10 June 2002 (PGW)


Michael Fulcher, conductor
Martin Lloyd-Evans, director
Isabel Mortimer, choreographer
Simon Corder, set and lighting designer
Frank Simon, costume designer

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama has come up trumps again by giving UK audiences a belated chance to catch up with a surrealist opera from the USA, a psychological fantasy dating from 1970. Its composer Dominick Argento is little known here, but his more than a dozen operas have been given in Sweden and Germany as well as in the USA.

The theatre is transformed into a railway station waiting room, a metaphor for brief encounters. The orchestra pit was dismantled and the familiar auditorium bisected by a raised length of rail track, which functions as a challenging cat walk. The small band was next to a raised stage at what is normally one side of the theatre, and there were enacted strange goings-on with puppets. The protagonists are thrown together by chance and are both curious about each other but defensive of their own identities. Each guards an inner self, hidden symbolically in different containers, and each attempt at rapprochement ends with withdrawal. Only one 'comes out' when challenged by his own wounded double, and movingly reveals his own emptiness. Railway noises indicate that others go on their journeys, whilst the characters in this opera remain stuck in their pasts.

The waiting areas were out of the golden age of 1st Class travel and waiters in black and white uniforms fussed around the performers, who sat with some of the spectators at dining tables, complete with lit candles. This ingenious approach pulled the audience into the action, physically and metaphorically; we are all waiting. (An even more memorable audience involvement was achieved at the brilliant Bridewell Theatre production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, when cast and audience shared tables munching meat pies with dubious ingredients!)

The ensemble of eight musicians, who all donned red fez hats, play elusive music with pastiche references to opera from Léhar to Wagner, and the score, which incorporates serial technique, Viennese waltzes, jazz and counterpoint, has its own special quality, not easy to grasp fully at first acquaintance with so much going on. The whole thing is bewildering for us as well as for those involved and many of the words cannot be heard.

Essentially a sad piece, the words and story line are often hard to follow at first viewing. It was a group enterprise rather than a vehicle for individual singers; the seven young students we saw all did well and Postcard From Morocco proved a worth-while choice to widen horizons for participants and Guildhall School of Music & Drama supporters.

Peter Grahame Woolf


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