As Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco began in its latest Curtis Opera Theatre production Friday, one could simultaneously wonder what moved anybody to produce it, and, in the nonsensical, contradictory spirit of the piece, why it's not produced more.
The plotless opera with everyday people not making conventional sense was fashionably artsy in decades past. Now lacking novelty (and with quirks that look tired), the opera leaves you waiting at length for other elements to emerge until there's a fatter payoff than you imagined, from the piece itself, the production, and mostly excellent Curtis musicians conducted by Rossen Milanov.
The initial view of the Prince Music Theater stage suggested a concert performance, with orchestra front and center. Then (as designed by Andromache Chalfant), a rear curtain opened to reveal the train station waiting room, one level up from the orchestra, inhabited by the singers, each with extended arias to talk about themselves. A lot.
Like many strangers you've been stuck with, they grew tiresome. But with the kind of objectivity afforded by the relatively distant stage, you could see Postcard from Morocco as a unique cultural meeting ground, with echoes of the opium-steeped surrealism of 1930s Paris and the absurdist plays of Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett. The collection of characters united only by travel suggests many Ship of Fools plots. When one woman sings about keeping her lover in her suitcase, Murder on the Orient Express comes to mind.
Ultimately, this 1971 opera is informed by the melancholy alienation of Edward Hopper's paintings, in which everyday American landscapes become oracles of inner emptiness. By the end, plot movement has been minimal, nothing is summed up. Yet you've still been on a journey, apotheosis and all, thanks to Argento's sometimes tonal music, somewhat in the spirit of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat. Most important, the music blooms and blooms more as characters reveal new levels of fantasy.
The production staged by Emma Griffin drew power from Greg Emetaz' slide projections showing waving fields of grass and a cloud-crowded sky. The Friday cast also came through - all of them - though special mentions go to Dominic Armstrong for his extended aria about sailing, Adrian Kramer as the shoe salesman, and Karen Jesse (with her suitcased lover). Milanov etched a clear musical trajectory in a performance that may come out on a live commercial recording. I'd buy it.