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February 10, 2012

Peabody Chamber Opera sends colorful 'Postcard From Morocco'

Some works of art pull you in by the clearest, most direct of means; you know why you're hooked at the start and you know what you've been through when it's all over.

Some works engage you for reasons you can't entirely explain and fill you with more questions than answers when you walk away, but you still feel satisfied somehow.

"Postcard From Morocco" is one of the latter type. Although this 1971 opera by Dominick Argento is nothing if not elusive, it manages to leave quite an imprint -- on singers as well as audiences, I imagine.

Peabody Chamber Opera has an effective staging of the piece well worth catching at the Theatre Project through Sunday.

It's a nice nod to Argento, who turns 85 this year. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at the Peabody Conservatory in the 1950s and went on to become one of this country's most successful and respected opera composers. He deserves plenty of attention any year.

Which reminds me -- the University of Maryland School of Music will salute Argento's 85th with productions by Maryland Opera Studio of "Postcard From Morocco" and "Miss Havisham's Fire" at the Clarice Smith Center in April. Argento will take part in discussions of his work during the April festival, which also features chamber music concerts, master classes and more. An all-Argento concert on March 30 will be at the center as a prelude to the fest.

OK, back to Peabody, Theatre Project and "Postcard from Morocco."

With a libretto by John Donahoe, the piece offers something of ...


an operatic "Twilight Zine" episode. The set-up is a train station in an exotic land, circa 1914, with lots of strange types flitting about the waiting room. They seem to embody something Lily Tomlin once said: "We are all in this together -- by ourselves."

The characters, identified by such descriptions as Lady With a Hand Mirror and Man With Old Luggage, make odd attempts to start conversations, and odder attempts to extract or reveal a little personal information.

Each person clutches something dear, something that seems in danger of being taken away or misplaced -- or discovered, which may be worse.

At one point, a crowd presses in on a man asking a question that suddenly goes from ordinary chit-chat with strangers to a menacing demand: "What do you do?"

Periodically, entertainment is offered to the would-be passengers. There's a puppet show. A vamp-ish songstress warbles in a made-up language. But nothing dispels the curious sense of unease, the feeling that these people are so emotionally lost that no train will ever lead them home.

Jennifer Blades directs the production with a fine eye for detail and surprise and has each scene unfolding in telling fashion on the efficient set (by Tom Bumblauskas). A couple of mannequins, looking as up-market as the humans in the production, add to the visual flair.

The singers are uniformly engaging. They don't all have ready-for-prime-time voices, but the potential is evident in each.

Tyler Lee, as the Man With a Paint Box, is particularly admirable. The tenor's sensitive phrasing conveys the character's melancholy and isolation most persuasively. Jeffrey Martin brings a solid tone and exemplary diction to the role of the Man With a Cornet Case.

As Lady With a Hand Mirror, Lisa Perry helps to fuel the performance with bright, agile singing. Elizabeth Kerstein likewise adds a dynamic touch as Lady With a Hat Box and the Foreign Singer.

Colorfully filling out the cast are Melissa Wimbish (Lady With a Cake Box), Halim Shon (Man With Old Luggage), and Michael Maliakel (Man With a Shoe Sample Kit).

Two voice students stay silent, performing as mimes -- Justine Moral and Joseph Harrell (with a good tan, he could give "Jersey Shore's" Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino some competition). They move in and out of the action quite charmingly and also get to carry on in one of the opera's most delicious scenes -- a dance routine set to a bizarre mash-up of Wagnerian themes.

Argento's eclectic score, which derives some of its most potent effects from only a single instrument interacting with a voice for long stretches, is in capable hands. Eileen Cornett is the music director. A well-matched orchestra is attentively conducted by Blair Skinner (he and the players sport Moroccan hats for the occasion).

With all of its mysteries and its unsettled air, this opera remains a fascinating, unsettling experience. If you had to sum it up, postcard-style, you might say: "Having a wonderful time. Glad I'm not there." 


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:07 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera, Peabody Institute


Postcard from Morocco seems to be played often by conservatories and music schools, but I recall any recent productions of professional opera companies. I know Curtis staged this as well.

I would like to see a professional chamber opera company stage this in Baltimore (could this have been material for Opera Vivente?). Nevertheless, I enjoyed the Sunday afternoon performance by Peabody. The intensity and the range of character studies recalled their production of Hoiby's Transformations, also at Theatre Project, a couple of seasons ago. Looking forward to Peabody's Crucible in March.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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