A single opera is a blockbuster. Staging several different ones by the same composer in quick succession is almost unthinkable, unless the composer is Richard Wagner. Thus, living opera composers rarely get career retrospectives. Indeed, they’re happy just to get performances; the annals of American opera are dominated by big pieces that had much-heralded premieres and have hardly been seen again.
No one is more aware of this than Leon Major, the stage director who since the 1980s has shaped and led the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland into a venue for contemporary, thoughtful, theatrical opera performance. Major once told me he dreamed of creating a festival of neglected American operas called “Second Comings.” Now, he’s ending his tenure at Maryland — he retires at the end of the semester — with his biggest attempt yet at reviving a major composer: a 10-day festival called “The Art of Argento,” with six decades of music by a once-leading, now-neglected cornerstone of the late-20th-century American opera scene, Domenick Argento. It opened this weekend with two fully staged operas, “Postcard From Morocco” and “Miss Havisham’s Fire” (the latter directed, in his swan song, by Major himself).
Argento can certainly write music, and write well for the voice, and set text so that it comes across intelligibly and truly sings. These should all be basic requirements for an opera composer, but they’re not as common as you might think. Argento has been lionized by a few generations of singers, and some of the old guard are coming out to celebrate him now — notably Frederica von Stade, the star mezzo-soprano who is emerging from semi-retirement to come here and perform in his song cycle “A Few Words About Chekhov” on Sunday.
And it’s hard to pin Argento down, certainly on the basis of the two operas Maryland has chosen to highlight (which are, respectively, his most performed and his own favorite). “Postcard From Morocco” is an absurdist vignette of a group of travelers in a railway station, circa 1920: Imagine the characters from an Agatha Christie novel entangled in an Ionesco play.
Argento himself drew the sense from the 12-page libretto he was given, literally cutting it up and reassembling it line by line, and the result is an often engaging chamber opera, bristling with allusion and musical jokes, about the way that people hide behind the shreds of identity they use to define themselves to others. Its characters are identified by their props rather than their names (Lady With a Hat Box), and their props are a kind of shorthand for their own narratives, or their own self-delusion. At the end, the Man With a Paint Box (here the capable Jason Lee) is challenged to paint everyone’s portrait, but his box is revealed to be empty. The other characters withdraw immediately, taking refuge in their own talismanic objects rather than risking a similar unveiling. The artist, however, sets out for a new, truer adventure — or is he only taking refuge in his daydreams? He sets off on a voyage, sent off by puppets, while the music sings of sea journeys and new horizons in tones that evoke Benjamin Britten.
“Miss Havisham’s Fire” is, by contrast, an attempt to write a 19th-century bel canto opera in a 20th-century idiom. And if there’s a connecting thread between the two works, it could be Britten as well; there are plenty of evocations of “Peter Grimes” here, from the setup of the work as a courtroom drama to the reliance on traditional operatic components (the love duet, the mad scene).
Based on Dickens’s “Great Expectations,” the opera was written for Beverly Sills, although she never sang it, and it is so well tailored to her outsized personality and particular gifts that it is dogged by her absence, with a lead role so challenging it has to be divided between two singers, the young Miss Havisham and the older one (sung here by the veteran Linda Mabbs, a U-Md. faculty member who was one of the instigators of this festival, and who gave an impressive performance).
Performing these two works on consecutive nights placed huge challenges on the young musicians and the resources of the school. “Postcard” got a bright, facile staging from Pat Diamond, while in the pit Michael Ingram didn’t always meet the challenge of helping the small (nine-piece) orchestra keep its bright, complex lines crisp. Major’s “Havisham” was adroit, whisking sets in and out to keep the story flowing smoothly from courtroom to flashback scene and back, but the orchestra under Timothy Long still sounded as if it needed more rehearsal.
Some of the singers had roles in both works, which seemed troublingly taxing to young voices. Lee sounded already tired on the opening night of “Postcard,” while the imposing and promising tenor Patrick Cook hit only about half his targets as the Man With Old Luggage in “Postcard” and the antihero Bentley Drummle in “Miss Havisham.” Jarrod Lee, as the lawyer Jaggers, was a more imposing presence in “Miss Havisham” than he had been in “Postcard” the preceding night; Alex DeSocio did his best as Pip; and Ilene Pabon maintained a kind of Angelina Jolie-like imperturbability as the beautiful Estella but sounded, again, a little tired after her turn as the Lady With the Hat Box on the preceding night. Hats off to all of these and the other performers in these large casts; one hopes they’ll follow the marathon with a week of vocal rest.
If seeing the two works back to back didn’t hit me over the head with the recognition of bygone masterpieces, it did increase a sense of frustration at the inability of the opera world not to generate new work, but to do anything sensible with it once it’s there. It would be wonderful if we lived in a climate that allowed a wide range of works to get a larger number of hearings, instead of one that has reduced us to a diet of “La Boheme” and “La Traviata” and “Carmen” done so often that these wonderful works start to feel almost stale.
This Argento retrospective is accompanied by a powerful sense of lost possibilities, evoking as it does a period of the 1970s and ’80s that many opera-goers may not even remember enough to feel nostalgia for it, even though a number of Argento’s works shone at the Washington Opera in the 1980s and ’90s. There are more new operas these days than there used to be then, and it’s not gotten any easier to see any of them. So don’t miss this festival. Go to the University of Maryland this week to see an important chapter of opera you may not even have known about.
“Postcard From Morocco” repeats Thursday; “Miss Havisham’s Fire” repeats Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Other highlights of “the retrospective include “A Water Bird Talk,” a funny and poignant monodrama, on Tuesday; “Miss Manners on Music,” a setting of excerpts from Judith Martin’s syndicated “Miss Manners” column, written for her 60th birthday, on Monday (Martin herself will lead a pre-concert introduction); and the mezzo Frederica von Stade in “A Few Words About Chekhov” on Sunday afternoon.