On July 28 at the Tsai Performance Center, Boston Midsummer Opera presented two small-scale, seldom-seen operas from the American literature. BMO’s enjoyable productions of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! demonstrated with delectable flair that less is often more.
It’s hard to know what to make of Trouble in Tahiti. Completed in 1952, it was Bernstein’s first attempt at fulfilling his vision of a uniquely American music drama that melds various distinct musical and theatrical genres. Like his better-known works of music-theater, especially Candide, it does indeed cross over many stylistic lines between popular and classical, musical theater and opera, comedy and tragedy. As a result, the work can be emotionally confusing. But in a way, that is oddly compelling. When the doo-wop-trio-turned-Greek-chorus sings of the “joys” of suburban life in that almost-too-rich Swing style that Bernstein was so good at, we don’t know if we’re hearing bitter irony or a “that’s just the way it is” romp. It’s a troubled feeling of not knowing what to feel that, once gotten used to, can be very powerful and, at the same time, entertaining.
In this production, that expressive ambiguity was highlighted by baritone Stephen Salters in the role of Sam. With his strong, velvety voice, he presented this character as a complex mix of levity, sadness, frustration, exhaustion, and hope, all with a subtle equivocacy that left the audience wondering whether to like him or not. It was a deep interpretation that, in many ways, represented the emotional core of the whole work. Salters was also a good foil for mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, whose rich voice was a bit too monochromatic for the varied emotive hues of Dinah. Eddy did, however, shine with burlesque-ish delight in the “What a Movie” aria, the comic-yet-biting centerpiece of the play. In addition to the two main singers, the solo trio of Megan Roth, Brian Robinson, and David Lara was well balanced, both musically and dramatically. The cast and orchestra as a whole did a very good job of capturing the various musical moods in the work, though they all seemed to have a little trouble with the swing syncopations, as if everyone were snapping on the beats rather than between them.
If Bernstein’s work is a model of multi-layered drama, Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit! is its antithesis. It is a credit to Hoiby’s keen sense of theatricality that he did exactly what should be done given the material: create a solid, well-written work of sheer entertainment. For the “libretto” the composer essentially transcribed and combined a couple of Julia Childs’s cooking show episodes. He was well aware of the main character’s naturally melodious speaking voice, and rather than working against it as a more “serious” modern composer might have done, he built on it, turning her inflections into song. Then, as if baking a cake himself, he layered simple-yet-tasty melodies and harmonies, kneaded in clever musical references, and frosted it all with colorful orchestrations. BMO’s particular recipe added Judy Kaye to the mix; she clearly owns the role, now that Jean Stapleton is no longer with us. Kaye’s delivery was so natural and unencumbered by any self-conscious acting that, had she been taller, one could have believed it was Julia herself on the stage.
Much like the works themselves, the stagings for both were fine displays of effective simplicity. The paintings — giant, framed, and atmospherically lit — that dropped in and out of the stage in Tahiti were charmingly suggestive of the various locations of each scene. They also evoked a sort of boxed-in feeling and a hint of fragmentation appropriate to the psychology of the piece. The single set for Bon Appétit! was a detailed and convincingly realistic replica of Childs’s studio kitchen, complete with functioning mixer and real food. All in all, both productions were tasteful and tasty, very much in keeping with BMO’s mission of “making opera as accessible as possible.”
Additional performances are on July 30 and August
Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.