Argento Retrospective: The Singing that Fills
Do you have to go to New York City to see high-quality productions of contemporary opera? The Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center under the direction of Leon Major puts that question to rest by offering a remarkable retrospective of the work of Dominick Argento. The Dresser attended the impressive opening nights of Argento's operas Postcard from Morocco (April 20, 2012) and Miss Havisham's Fire (April 21, 2012).
Postcard from Morocco, a one-act opera of 90 minutes that premiered in 1971, is based on a libretto by John Donahue and liberally rearranged by the composer. In his musical memoir Catalogue Raisonné as Memoir, Argento said that initially the "utterly surreal" libretto about strangers waiting in a train station with unassigned dialogue baffled him. So what the composer did was, "cut each page [of the libretto] into fifteen or twenty horizontal strips and taped the sentences together again in a different order." He used the libretto he said as a "blueprint" and assigned the lines to "any character I fancied since I knew exactly who the singers would be." From Argento's words alone and without ever attending a performance, one can fully appreciate why this popular chamber opera has repeatedly been compared to Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach. However, the Dresser walked out of the Clarice Smith's Kay Theatre saying to her seatmate, didn't you hear the Benjamin Britten, the Peter Grimes, in this piece--that part when characters sing about boats? The next day, the Dresser asked Argento about this and what he said is that his admiration for Britten is top of his list.
In the April 21 "Talk with Dominick Argento," the composer said that Postcard from Morocco is sympathetic to the human condition and he cautioned that the worse thing one could do is to ask a person, "What do you do?" The Dresser believes that by extension, the operagoer should not ask what Postcard from Morocco is about. The odd thing about the characters in Postcard is that they are identified not by name but by the things they carry. And yes, the things these seven characters carry around the train station tell the audience a lot about them but these items also show us what these characters do and how they behave.
As to production itself, the singing was exhilarating--the trio about the hatbox that included Mandy Brown (Lady with a Hand Mirror), Ashley Briggs (Lady with a Cake Box), and Ilene Pabon (Lady with a Hat Box) nearly levitated the Dresser from her seat but every singer made significant contribution to this performance. Cleverly choreographed were the four mimes, who mostly operated from a red-curtained stage at one edge of the railroad station. Sweep of the hat to Izumi Ashizawa, the Movement Consultant. Kudos to the Director Pat Diamond, the Scenic Designer James Kronzer, and Costume Designer David O. Roberts.
Argento in his April 21 talk paid high compliments to the exceptional work that was coming out of Leon Major's opera studio and how welcomed he felt at the University of Maryland. He also quipped that it wasn't always the case that he could enjoy Postcard from Morocco, because "half of the productions I didn't hear very well because of slamming exit doors." To this the Dresser says to hurry to see this production. It's exceptionally engaging in all aspects.
Miss Havisham's Fire has quite a complex backstory about its creation. Argento was commissioned in 1977 by New York City Opera to write an opera for Beverly Sills. She had an idea she floated about an opera on the Empress Carlotta of Mexico. So Charles Nolte set to work writing a libretto he titled The Phantom Empress. However, Sills paid a visit to Argento in Minnesota where he is based and asked if he had any other ideas and he suggested a possible expansion of a monodrama called Miss Havisham's Wedding Night (drawn from Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations) by John Olon-Scrymgeour. Sills said she loved the idea of working with a character that was a folle d'amour.
In Catalogue Raisonné, Argento said he was somewhat disappointed not to work on the Carlotta opera because he had already been thinking about several scenes. Then there was the sticky problem of delivering the bad news to Charles Nolte. And the crowning blow was that after Argento wrote what he considered the best music he had ever written, the New York Times critic in 1977 thoroughly panned Miss Havisham's Fire. Was it because it was overly long? Was it because the role of Ms. Havisham was written for the astounding abilities of Beverly Sills who withdrew because she had a recurrence of cancer? Was the squeaky platform where the inquest scene the cause of such a harsh review? Whatever the reason, the criticism hit Argento hard and he revised the opera and had a second premier in 1979.