The DCR Steriti Memorial Rink in the North End is not likely to strike anyone as a potential opera house. But the Boston Lyric Opera has effectively fitted it with the atmosphere of a nightclub, or perhaps of a Pops concert, including tables to which listeners are invited to bring drinks and refreshments. In this format it served excellently well as a site for their contribution to the worldwide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday this year, his early one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, which presents a view of a marriage based on that of Bernstein’s own parents, Sam and Jennie, a mismatched immigrant couple. While drafting the opera Bernstein actually used his parents’ names for the two principal characters, though eventually he changed the woman’s name to Dinah because it worked better when sung.
The BLO found an unusual approach to expanding the 45-minute opera into a full evening. Late in his life Bernstein revisited the family at the moment of Dinah’s death, extending the plot to include their children (they have only one boy, discussed but never seen, in the original), carrying forward the marital issues that are at the core of the opera and embedding Trouble in Tahiti into the larger score as a flashback. The title of that later, larger opera was drawn from a phrase heard several times in the earlier piece: A Quiet Place.
Rather than doing that, BLO stage director David Schweizer chose to append Arias and Barcarolles, a cycle of eight songs that Bernstein wrote 30 years after creating his little opera, songs not explicitly linked to the Tahiti plot, but presenting miniature scenes understandable as further moments in a marriage, here assumed to be the same one, with the same singers as male and female protagonists.
A thrust stage elevated above the floor with steps all around allowed the singers now and then to move among members of the audience. The minimal set consisted only of a table and chairs serving as breakfast table, an office desk, a psychiatrist’s couch, and so on. Nancy Leary’s costumes (built by Liz Perlman) dressed Sam and Dinah as a 1950s businessman and housewife, and the vocal trio, which serves as a “chorus” in the style of a popular radio ensemble, as performers in a more formal setting. The seven-piece orchestra, placed at the back is understood to be “offstage,” though visible throughout.
The opera takes place in a single day, starting with a tense argument over breakfast and ending in the evening when Sam invites Dinah to see a movie—entitled Trouble in Tahiti—one that she saw during the afternoon and hated. The centerpiece of the opera is an extended arias for Sam and Dinah. He’s playing a championship game of handball, and crowing about his manliness. She takes the afternoon to see a movie, a romantic musical set in the South Pacific, entitled Trouble in Tahiti. She finds the film utterly absurd, though she can’t help being touched by its element of romance. At the end of the day, with their relationship still on a ragged edge, Sam makes a gesture of generosity by suggesting that they go to the film showing at the local cinema. Dinah does not tell him she has already seen it and hated it. She thinks for a moment, and agrees to go with him. Of course we know that, while they are watching the film, they will not be talking to one another or doing anything to try to improve their relationship.
The scenes of this rather sad tale are brightened by a lightly satirical presentation on the part of three singers (mezzo Mara Bonde, tenor Neal Ferreira, and baritone Vincent Turregano) who form a close-harmony group straight out of a 1950s radio broadcast. Their music is mostly jazzy, reflecting the pop conventions of the day, and their lyrics parody life in suburbia with “the little white house in Wellesley Hills,” one of a constantly changing list of suburban locations. The three singers of the trio move all around the principals in the story, suggesting the showbiz style of the period. (Melinda Sullivan was movement director.) At various times one or another of the trio plays a mimed part with either Sam or Dinah: as Sam’s secretary, Dinah’s shrink, and Sam’s handball opponent.
The singing of Sam (baritone Marcus DeLoach) and Dinah (mezzo Heather Johnson) projects the frustrations of a husband and wife drifting apart and arguing over trivialities, though privately each wants things to work out. Heather Johnson warmly conveys her passionate desire to recover the missing romance in their marriage, sparked unexpectedly by a ridiculous movie. Marcus DeLoach’s boasting of his athletic prowess offers little hope that he will give Dinah what she wishes. And throughout their challenging day, we hear the vocal trio continually celebrating the delights of suburbia and the commercialism of modern life through nonstop advertising jingles (reinforced by a lively slideshow projecting characteristic magazine ads of the period), in an endlessly cheerful tone.
When Trouble in Tahiti reaches its poignant ending, with the married couple off for an evening in the cinema that will not please either of them, the production moves without break to the appended song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. The seven-piece orchestra for the opera remains in place without playing anything, while conductor David Angus joins the orchestral pianist Brett Hodgdon for the piano four-hands accompaniment to the song cycle. Each song suggests a specific situation: the casual way two people say “I love you” (“and so easy to mean it, too”), a child’s song (lyric by the composer’s mother Jennie Bernstein), a man fantasizing about the love of his life, a woman singing in awe about the miracle of a child’s birth, and so on. One song, describing a wedding, is sung in Yiddish (text by Yankel Yitskhok Segal); for this one number, David Angus asked the Bernstein estate for permission to orchestrate it in the style of a klezmer band, giving the orchestra something to play in the second half and showing off the talents of clarinetist Jan Halloran as a klezmer player. Throughout the entire cycle, the singing is done only by Marcus DeLoach and Heather Johnson. The members of the vocal trio are mute, though they continue to take part as mimes, with effective theatrical movement.
The cycle ends with a slow waltz sung wordlessly; it is entitled “Nachspiel (Postlude): In Memoriam.” The same music had begun the entire evening, as an evocative suggestion of the difficulties ahead, preparing the audience for an ache of yearning.
I’ve heard recordings of Trouble in Tahiti and seen a DVD of another production, but this one, from the Boston Lyric Opera, is far and away the most effective version I’ve experienced, theatrically alive from beginning to end, and warmly human, despite the apparent downhill path of the principals’ marriage.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.