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A CurtainUp Berkshire Opera Review
American Opera Trio: A Hand of Bridge, Game of Chance, Trouble in Tahiti
Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, a one-act opera in seven scenes, is last but by no means least on the menu of the Berkshire Opera's trio of American Operas of the 1950s. What Bernstein referred to as his " little opry" is in fact the program's centerpiece.
According to the liner notes for the CD of Tahiti, Bernstein began composing Tahiti in 1951 while vacationing in Mexico and it so stirred his creative juices that he instructed his New York concert manager to cancel everything on his calendar to give him time to complete the work. The initial creative flow was interrupted by various distractions and though the work was completed in 1952, the trilogy he envisioned never materialized. Thus opera impresarios must look to other compatible works to round out any program featuring this opera with its cutting edge blend of jazz musical theater and a libretto that satirized the effect of empty suburban values on personal relationships. (Anyone who's read John Updike's brilliant Too Far To Go short story collection which post-dated this opera by twenty years, might well think of the Maples when watching Bernstein's Dinah and Sam navigate their way through a day of their troubled marriage).
Both A Hand of Bridge composed by Samuel Barber and with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti (if its nine minute length doesn't make this the shortest opera on record, I'm at a loss to name another) and Game of Chance composed by Seymour Barab and with a libretto by Evelyn Manacher Draper are about 1950s characters who yearn for a more meaningful and fulfilled life. Thus their themes and the time frame in which they were written and are set support director Sam Helfrich and conductor/pianist Kathleen Kelly's programming decision.
Given its brevity, A Hand of Bridge understandably doesn't have much of a plot, just each of the four card player-singers taking turns standing up to reveal their inner thoughts. It is also the most dissonant offering. The comic A Game of Chance, like Trouble In Tahiti, features a surreal element -- in this case the character of The Representative (superbly acted and sung by baritone John Fulton, who appears in all three operas) who fulfills the dreams three discontented knitters are sure will bring them happiness. Yet, amusing and well sung as it is, this is very much Bernstein's evening and no opera or musical theater lover should miss this all too rare opportunity to see the genre-crossing Trouble In Tahiti.
Mezzo-soprano Melina Penida and baritone Evan Jones, the only two of the six young singers not in the previous pieces, have the voices and acting skills to fully inhabit the roles of the well to do suburban couple, Dinah and Sam, who instead of being able to talk about their problems end up going to a movie-- its title, Trouble In Tahiti.
According to biographer Humphrey Burton, the unhappily married couple was based on Bernstein's parents, Sam and Jennie -- the names that appeared in the original draft. Three of the participants in the other two operas, form the sort of Greek chorus that has enlivened recent Broadway musicals. Their trio's first appearance through an opening in the Andromache Chalfant's versatile set reminded me of the "Radio" chorus in the Tony Kushner-Jeannie Tesori musical Caroline, Or Change currently on Broadway (my review). How ahead of his time Bernstein was!.
The two piano plus saxophone & percussion band worked well to bring out the rich melodic undertones of Bernstein's score. The Zukowski Theatre, which during the year serves as Lee High School's auditorium, is a well-located, acoustically satisfying mid-sized space that should be used more often by local arts organizations.
As already stated, Mr. Helfrich and Ms. Kelly's choices of companion pieces for Trouble In Tahiti are valid. However, Berkshire Opera Company being located so near the Tanglewood Music Festival where Leonard Bernstein was a much loved presence for so many years and where Trouble In Tahiti actually had its second production, I think audiences would have been thrilled with an all Bernstein evening. To quote one of the characters from his beautiful but under-appreciated Candide, in the best of all possible worlds, the smartly staged Tahiti would have been paired with a concert of excerpts from Candide which, like the "little opry" is as much opera as musical theater. Maybe in another season.
Review of Summer '94 Concert Staging of La Traviata. The Secret Marriage, last year's BOC opera in Lee
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