“Student opera” once again proved that the fringe is where it’s at

“Student opera” once again proved that the fringe is where it’s at

Review by Peter Tromp

The audience seemed a tad mystified after the curtain closed on the debut performance of ‘Postcard From Morocco’ on South African soil. This is hardly your typical opera, truth be told, but it was still somewhat discomfiting to see the subdued response, because for my money, ‘Postcard From Morocco’ has been probably my favourite opera production this year. (Matthew Wild’s ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ comes in at a close second.)

As I said in my review of ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’, there’s something thrillingly unshackled about these Cape Town Opera/UCT Opera School collaborative productions. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with audience expectations possibly being lowered for these “student productions” in comparison with the full-scale professional ones, but you are more likely to see interesting experiments and diversions. It’s almost like a fringe for opera, if you will. Just like Wild earlier this year, Alan Swerdlow appears to have relished the creative freedom that was evidently afforded him. The production he delivered last week was unlike anything I’ve seen on our local stages: unconventional, yet unashamedly escapist; slick and polished, yet unsettling (in the best possible way) at the same time; and opulent to within inches of a classic era Hollywood film, yet also wholly purposeful and forward looking.

One of the frustrations that audiences (almost forgivably) might have felt with the production is the lack of defined characters. Rather, the characters in most instances are stand-ins for certain emotions, or a strand of memory. In fact, as Swerdlow pointed out in his director’s notes in the programme, there’s a reason that only one of the characters in the opera is even referred to by name. Pulitzer-prize and Grammy Award winning composer Dominick Argento’s decentralized approach works wonders on one if you are prepared to surrender to his unconventional, narrative(-less) methods. There’s something in the way that ‘Postcard From Morocco’ almost hypnotically grabs a hold of you that felt exhilarating to me.

Another possible reason that the opera proved a bit unpalatable to the opening night audience is that the music at times flirts with the atonal. Those accustomed to classic opera’s usual propensity for the glorious – whether exulting in joy, or tragedy – would have felt especially uncomfortable. ‘Postcard From Morocco’ almost fizzles out, rather than build to a crescendo. In many ways it’s like opera from the inside out. It gives you the dots, and asks you to connect them.

Needless to say, it’s quite challenging material for youngsters to perform, and perhaps the only viable criticism I can level at Swerdlow’s otherwise immaculate production is that not every one of his student cast was up to the task.
Here’s hoping that we get to see this production in an extended run at some point in the future.

* Visit www.capetownopera.co.za for more information.