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Argento: Postcard From Morocco / Milanov, Et Al

Argento / Curtis Opera Theatre / Milanov
Release Date: 03/10/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1098/99   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Dominick Argento
Performer:  Elliot MadoreAmanda MajeskiTammy CoilRinnat Moriah,   ... 
Conductor:  Rossen Milanov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Curtis Chamber Ensemble
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 28 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

If you don’t know this piece, then you should definitely purchase this disc. Postcard is a gem, unassuming on the surface but in fact a carefully wrought and subversive little masterpiece.


ARGENTO Postcard from Morocco Rossen Milanov, cond; Rinnat Moriah ( Coloratura Soprano ); Amanda Majeski ( Soprano ); Tammy Coil ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Mezzo-Soprano ); Joshua Stewart ( Lyric Tenor ); Brian Zachary Porter ( Tenor ); Elliot Madore ( Baritone ); Evan Hughes ( bass ); Curtis C Ens ALBANY TROY 1098 (2 CDs: 87:41 Text and Translation) Live: Philadelphia 4/19-22/2007

Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco was premiered in 1971 and has remained in the repertoire as much as any newer American opera seems able to do. The piece is sweet, lyrical, funny, stimulatingly perplexing, and hard to classify. And this is all to the good.

Via the Internet I found a New York Times review by Tim Page of a 1985 Juilliard production, and he makes the excellent point that the work falls into the “American Surrealist” opera tradition, landmarks of which include Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. John Donahue’s libretto certainly isn’t linear or straightforward: what logic it has is of the dream. A group of travelers are stuck in a train-station waiting room. (Morocco, perhaps? There’s a mention or two of Egypt, but the scenario seems to remain mum about all this, and it doesn’t really matter.) Over time, they reveal their inner lives, embodied by the luggage each of them carries, which seems to contain fantasies, loves, and fetishes. All the characters are identified only by their vocal types, though the Tenor eventually gains a name (and quasi-protagonist status) as Mr. Owen. The Bass, a puppet master, may have nefarious plans for the group. By the end, all have passed on to another rendezvous, except Mr. Owen, who is a painter, and who sings the final culminating aria about his departure on a crystal ship (shades of Wagner and Weill).

Page’s aforementioned tradition also tends to combine avant-garde text and theatrical convention with tonal (or modal) music; that’s not a contradiction, as Surrealism is in large part about how the familiar is distorted by dream and human psychology. And what better familiar template than musical tropes from the repertoire? Argento creates something of a small miracle with the piece, touching on a host of references, yet never snidely. He obviously loves these sources, but he also preserves a fruitful ironic distance. The result is a rare bird indeed—memorable, personal postmodernism.

There are many examples of how this works, but I’ll mention only a few. There’s an elegiac duet in German for Coloratura Soprano and Lyric Tenor, where the composer is channeling Strauss. The Tenor’s first major “ship” aria has references in its brass accompaniment to Wagner, but to me it sounds more in the spirit of a musical playlet from one of the Mahler song cycles. And then the puppet master’s piece seems underpinned by gamelan motives; go figure. The point is that it’s freewheeling, and fluid as one thing blurs into another. And the use of such a kooky little pit band (violin, viola, bass, clarinet, saxophone, trombone, guitar, percussion, keyboards) gives the whole proceeding the feel of a Piazza San Marco tea-parlor ensemble, spinning out salon music for the travelers.

This is a live performance by student singers at Curtis, who are all excellent. This is very much an ensemble piece, but I have to mention mezzo Rinnat Moriah, in an aria of whose language I have no idea (it may be made up, or Esperanto, or . . . not even Internet searches can help me, so any reader is welcome to chime in). Also Brian Zachary Porter takes up the challenge of Mr. Owen with confidence and poignancy.

There is a certain amount of background ambient hum and audience laughter at appropriate moments (the piece is quite funny; I guffawed a few times myself). There was an old CRI recording of the piece, but since the company has caved, this is the only competition, and it’s extremely welcome. The resource of U.S. conservatories and music schools, especially when it comes to presenting new music, is a treasure to be tapped into, and we should see more of such (and stop worrying about categories of live/studio, professional/student; the lines are too porous now, thanks to advances of education and technology). While I lament the fact that it seems now costs and logistics are prohibitive to release such a work with professionals, I also salute the young (and their mentors) for stepping up to fill the gap.

If you don’t know this piece, then you should definitely purchase this disc. Postcard is a gem, unassuming on the surface but in fact a carefully wrought and subversive little masterpiece.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Postcard from Morocco by Dominick Argento
Performer:  Elliot Madore (Baritone), Amanda Majeski (Soprano), Tammy Coil (Mezzo Soprano),
Rinnat Moriah (Soprano), Joshua Stewart (Tenor), Brian Zachary Porter (Tenor),
Evan Hughes (Bass)
Conductor:  Rossen Milanov
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Curtis Chamber Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1971; USA 

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