A comprehensive and stunning celebration of composer Dominick Argento’s work is being presented at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and it simply should not be missed.
Of the two major operas being offered in the program, Postcard from Morocco is the trickier. Not only does it lack a conventional story, there are no “postcards” and it’s not really about Morocco. Instead, the opera teases the brain, asking the audience to go along with different characters’ stories simultaneously as well as a tri-partite dream world, that includes an ongoing puppet performance played by actor-dancers, a stage within a stage life for the characters, and their “real” one, a kind of way station purgatory. Aural shifts and new tunings prepare the audience for these different worlds.
Seven strangers find themselves in a waiting room of a train station on their way to some exotic destination. The work opens with the ensemble sharing, “What do you do?” It’s what people say when they are strangers and often feeling uncomfortable. To pass the time, they try to learn a little about their fellow travelers’ lives.
They all carry suitcases or boxes of one sort or another, and we begin to discover that the contents of each hold a secret. Sometimes the singers disappear and reappear in costume on the platform stage to entertain each other. One of them sings in a sultry cabaret style in a totally made-up language. There’s an odd duet between what seems to be a Swiss-German milkmaid and her beau.
I risk saying that never has there been such a “democratic” opera, suggesting one of the many ways that Argento proves himself to be a great humanitarian in composition. Note for note and word for word, the work unfolds with equal time for each singer-actor-character. Having known several of the singers from Minnesota from the work’s premiere in the early seventies, I understand not only the very specific embodied voices that Argento was writing for but his commitment to support the ensemble playing that became the hallmark style of Minnesota Opera.
The inspiration of specific voices is something Argento admits is essential to his writing. This doesn’t preclude, he insists, other singers successfully reinventing the roles. He should be most happy with this production. Director Pat Diamond has helped the young singer-actors rise to the great vocal demands of this work, and they seem to relish the interweaving of characters’ stories with total commitment, despite the work’s oddities.
Another essential aspect of Argento’s work is that he is a deeply psychological writer. Mandy Brown, Ashley Briggs, Ilene Pabon, Patrick Cook, Jason Lee, Alex DeSoccio and Jarred Lee first hide then begin unlocking secrets hidden in their assorted valises. Through the show, they “unpack” the depths of their characters’ psychological make-up. The conceit reminded me of the famous teacher of Russian Realism, Michael Chekhov, writing about what would later come to be known as “method” acting. He would tell actors that to prepare a role they needed to create an imaginative “box” for their character that must be crammed with past experiences, memories, and dreams, that would only be partially revealed on the stage.
While all the singers enthusiastically portrayed these multi-faceted creatures, the most moving of these experiences for me were Ashley Bigg’s revelatory aria about what she says is in her Cake Box and the last aria sung by Jason Lee. Bigg was able to show something both very creepy and lyrically moving in her work. Left behind when the others rushed off, Lee’s character builds himself a little boat and floats across the stage, a picture both triumphant and poignant, conjuring the troubled but fascinatingly imaginative world of Robert Louis Stevenson’s childhood. Complexity of the human experience seems to strike a chord with Argento.
Many will agree that no composer alive or dead has set language more brilliantly than Dominique Argento. He seems to be fearless about working with some of the greatest prose writers for inspiration in his works, including Virginia Woolf, William James, and Anton Chekhov. He has the sense of a jeweler in finding words or turns of phrases like gems, unique in color and facets, then dropping them in a setting to bring out their most brilliant shine. Thus, it’s a wonderful match to have the Maryland Opera Studio and the University’s School of Music embrace and prepare the riches for a festival representing this composer. From what we have already seen, not only does the training at Maryland provide good grounding in the vocal challenges of contemporary composition, but Argento’s works demand total fidelity and sensitivity to the shaping of words. The ensemble of singers demonstrated extraordinary diction as well as emotional coloration of language.
If Postcard from Morocco was tantalizing and curious, Miss Havisham’s Fire was a visual and vocal knockout.
To start with, the casting was superb. Mind you, this was not aided and abetted by a cattle call in NYC; most were homegrown and included students and faculty.
Several of the performers returned having been featured in Postcards. The doe eyes and doll face of Ilene Pabon as Estella made her a perfect realization of the beautiful “vampire” that steals Pip’s heart and soul. She had a curious “bottoming” in some of her notes, but whether this was an affectation or a choice to express a character split between angel looks and her darker side, it worked in the role. I have rarely seen a performer hold the stage so arrestingly in stillness as this young singer-actress. Alex DeSocio, as Pip, bore that timid, wounded look and smallish features that made him no match for the worldliness of Estella. His voice is sweet and expressive. When he sits and sings of his first time in Havishman’s garden, he sings with such affecting poignancy of his meeting with the beautiful, proud girl that would change his life.
All the singers do such solid work. Patrick Cook as Bentley Drummle, the man who would marry and abandon Estella, provided a great foil to Pip. A larger than life tenor with that pingy sound that hits the wall, Cook moves and sings as if he had cast himself as the leading man in every opera for years. Bass singer Jarrod Lee, who played Jagger, Havisham’s solicitor, used his voice to cut through and intimidate the rest of the throng. He carried his tall figure well, moving his hands with such economy of means, his was a magnificent portrait of rectitude and icy power. Deborah Thurlow as “Nanny” Broome proved fiercely effective in her self-righteous protection of her strange mistress, and the four “Pockets” (Monica Soto-Gil, Mandy Brown, Ashley Briggs, and Jason Lee) fluttered in to coddle up to Havisham and then sat with vulture-like presence showing darker motives.
Everything came together in this opera. The chorus of ten couples in the big dance number, swirled and glided, and, thanks to choreographer Alcine Wiltz, not one person put a foot down wrong or looked anything but in their glorious element and completely in character. The Chorus singing was likewise expressively dark and agitated as needed. The two young singers Carolyn Brent and Teresa Ferrara as young Estella and Pip were most fetching.
The music was voluptuous and rich at times, at others taut and sharp but always moving. There were moments of great humor with an instrument “announcing” a minor character, such as Orlock the manservant. As in many of Argento’s works, there were also little flourishes nodding to Handel and other composers and styles. But never did it feel clever for the sake of pastiche.
There were even times when all the singers’ vocal lines were complexly layered, and the orchestra would crank up so that the actual words of any individual singer were obliterated. Instead of this being irritating, it seemed an intentional choice by Argento to create a cacophony of people and emotions competing at such a pitch that any sense was drowned out. He would occasionally indicate for a singer to hold onto a note and ride it, surrounded by silence or supported by a soft intonation of strings like a tensile cobweb gossamer from the banquet’s wedding cake sent spinning across the space.
In Linda Mabbs’ performance as Miss Havisham, we were watching sheer brilliance of music and character come together. Argento has found in Mabbs an inspired interpreter of the great Charles Dickens character and a true partner in his love for language. Every trill and melisma were interpreted very specifically. It was as if every word she sent to express in a different part of her expressive body. “Death” fell down a well from her mouth into the bowl of her pelvis. “Fancy” rolled around her long, expressive fingertips. “Play him” set fire in her brain and smoldered between her eyes.
Both composer and singer have made some very bold choices about this iconic creature. To the question I always had, “Is Aurelia Havisham crazy?,” in this interpretation, I would say, “Crazy like a fox.” This Aurelia plays the “Pocket” cousins who come to visit her and try to smarm their way into her fortune, and she watches them walk right into her trap. Argento-Mabbs’ Havisham also has a conscience. The whole opera unfolds with her looking back on her life and regretting the pain she has caused, even asking Pip to forgive her. Does she ever really like Pip or is she only ensnaring him to make him feel pain? In this opera of flashbacks, Aurelia even has moments of liberation and joy when she enters into the games and singing of the young children. It’s hard to find a place that Argento and Mabbs haven’t thought through. I felt for the first time that I understood how a woman would wait and store 50 years of pain and betrayal.
This was the part of parts conceived originally for Beverly Sills, with both the old and young Havisham to be played by the phenomenal 20th century opera star and ending with a 35-minute aria of madness. In this production, like most others I imagine, it’s shared by two singer-actors. Emily Kate Nadick did a lovely job, in the scene where she is getting dressed for her wedding. She portrays the fluttering nervousness and anticipatory joy but also the vanity and cruelty of Aurelia as a young woman. When Mabbs repeats the aria in the last scene, she finally succumbs to madness, and we witness her age peel like will-‘o-the-wisps from her tortured mind and body, while her voice becomes transformed to another time and place.
James Kronzer’s set was spare but tremendously effective, the towering windows of the mansion closing in like coffins and the curtains tattered with age. Windows would disappear revealing a cyclorama backdrop on which the sky changed colors and mood from blue with lacy clouds to ominous red and darkness thanks to the lighting design by Brian MacDevitt.
Leon Major directed this stunning production with much affection and deep understanding of Argento’s music and of the dramatic beats that the composer crafted brilliantly.
Excuse the pun, but this was a “Major” event. Everyone should take the opportunity to see any and all works remaining this week, which include operas as monodrama, song cycles, and even new cabaret, in this festival celebrating a master. Argento is a composer for the ages, and his works are truly a gift. We are to thank the University of Maryland and Maryland Opera Studio for sharing him so generously with us.
The Art of Argento continues through April 29, 2010 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Univ of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Details and tickets
The Art of Argento: A Celebration of Composer Dominick Argento’s Work
Postcard from Morocco
Libretto by John Donahue
Directed by Pat Diamond
Running time of Postcards from Morocco: 90 minutes with no intermission
Miss Havisham’s Fire
Libretto by John Olon-Scrymgeour after Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Directed by Leon Major
Running time Miss Havisham’s Fire: 2 hours 30 minutes with a 20-minute intermission
Produced by Clarice Center Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland’s School of Music and Maryland Opera Studio
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Both are Highly Recommended