At one time or another, almost everyone is known to someone else by one or more of their possessions. Sometimes we even define ourselves that way: possessed by our possessions.
Marble City Opera’s production of Dominick Argento’s “Postcard from Morocco,” with libretto by John Donahue, playing again tonight (5/11) at Jackson Terminal, the historic baggage terminal on Jackson Ave. in the Old City, explores the ideas behind how others see us and how we see ourselves.
“Postcard” is not the usual love/murder/loss opera story that proceeds in the linear, story-telling fashion of typical opera construction. It has more in common with absurdist or surrealist theater than it does conventional opera. Images of Philip Glass’ “Einstein on the Beach,” Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” or the trilogy of short Beckett plays at The Hive this January, are more closely connected.
It involves the chance encounter of eight characters random meeting in a train station. One of them, played by Marya Barry, has no lines or other involvement except for blowing a train whistle at the beginning of the opera and serving as a ticket-taker at the end.
In many operas, the handprint of the director is evident in subtle things: the placement of characters during a scene, the turn of a head, a hand gesture. In this production, the work of director James Marvel is the difference between chaos and a static state. It may well be the Marvel’s best work, or any other director’s, seen locally.
The characters move about the performing space of the terminal in mostly grid patterns. It gives a sense of order to an otherwise orderless plot, even though at moments the movement of the characters resembled zombie robots. There’s also a kind of choreography that occasionally has the characters organize themselves into a human-form ship, or other construction that recalls the modern dance work of Paul Taylor, Momix or Pilobolus.
The piano reduction of Argento’s score, conducted by Peter Leonard and expertly played by Brandon Coffer, a budget consideration instead of the 9-instrument orchestra, probably helped in the terminal’s extremely live acoustic space. Whether or not the crash when the conductor hit the music stand at an important late moment was intentional or not can be debated.
But the resonant acoustics were also a problem. It was impossible to pick out voices when all of the characters were singing, although the warmth of the space added to Mr. Owen’s unaccompanied aria, beautifully sung by Brandon Evans, about his childhood visions of a cloud ship.
The cast, in the performance I saw Thursday, was uniformly good and easily heard when they told their individual story. Ryan Colbert, singing the role of the Lady with the Cake Box, actually carried around the cremated remains of her lover to accompany her on the travels they had envisioned taking together. It was both a morbid and endearing moment.
Jennifer Barsamian, as the Foreign Singer, and Cat Richmond, as Lady with Hand Mirror, which she used to see the world around and behind her, had obsessions of their own.
Colin Levin, Shoe Salesman, was an especially animated, refusing to let anyone see the wares in his case, as well as when Daniel Barry, as the Man with Cornet Case, took on the role of a puppeteer with the others as his marionettes.
Ryan Ford, as Man with Old Luggage, was poignant as the traveler with a decal covered case. One wasn’t sure whether the stickers were souvenirs of adventures taken, or memories of nothing more than daydreams.
Marble City Opera deserves enormous credit for taking on this production and staging it in another unconventional choice of places that, nevertheless, come off as the ideal setting, despite some of their limitations.
“Postcard to Morocco” will be performed again tonight at 8 p.m. After the 90-minute opera, everyone is invited to join the cast at a neighboring bar to talk about what might have slipped past them during the show and to congratulate MCO artistic director Kathryn Marvel and general director Brandon Gibson, along with the everyone on an evening well done.