Last week the Union Avenue Opera presented three performances of Bernstein’s very first opera, a strange little piece called "Trouble in Tahiti", which first appeared in 1953.
The second half of the evening is a quite brilliant cabaret of Bernstein songs. (More on this later.)
"Trouble in Tahiti" is in one act (about forty-five minutes) and consists of two main characters, Sam and Dinah. They’re backed by a very swingy jazzy vocal trio. The “orchestra,” as in the original production, is a jazz trio: piano, bass and drums. So with this show Union Avenue is making a significant departure from their usual fare. (I heard one patron remark during intermission: “This isn’t what I expected.”)
We watch as a young couple struggle with the angst of suburban life in America in the ‘50’s. Sam is a self-glorifying executive. (Well, he’s pretty much of a jerk.) He sings of his being a born winner as he closes deals masterfully, excels in his handball tournament, and glories in his general all-round wonderfulness. But he can’t be bothered to pay attention to his wife or child. And he “kind-of-accidentally” gropes his secretary.
Dinah, on the other hand, is a ‘50’s stay-at-home wife. She spends her time shopping—or visiting her shrink—or going to movie matinees. (She has a lovely “aria” about an awful movie called "Trouble in Tahiti".) The most traumatic thing for Dinah would be if she didn’t have dinner ready when Sam comes home from work. She’s unfulfilled, she’s lost, she’s lonely, and she’s desperate. So Tahiti is not the only place where there is trouble.
Why can’t Dinah and Sam communicate any more? Why, when by chance they run into each other in the city, do they both tell little lies to avoid having lunch together?
All the while the trio/chorus sings brightly of the happy-happy-happiness that surely is guaranteed by America’s wonderful consumerist society: “Wine in the soup! Chlorophyll toothpaste! Less than an hour by train! Suburbia!!!” How could anybody in Scarsdale or Brookline or Berkeley Heights or Bloomfield not be blissful?
There are, as usual, splendid voices in the cast. Kara Cornell captures Dinah’s focusless suffering, and she has a lovely dramatic soprano voice. But in her songs I often found myself relying on the supertitles to understand the lyric. Was it the darker shade of her voice? Or some acoustical eccentricity of the venue? (I was sitting just under the balcony—not an ideal position perhaps.)
Ian Greenlaw has an impressively strong, rich and clear baritone. He exudes confidence in all of Sam’s braggadocio.
And the chorus—Elise LaBarge, Clark Sturdevant and Anthony Heinemann—do very fine work. (They also serve in the deft shifting of bits of furniture and scenery.)
The staging, under the direction of Allyson Ditchey, features a minimal setting—just a few pieces of furniture, with the band center stage, and an elevated platform behind the band. This is totally appropriate for this show—which is, after all, a chamber piece—and the few changes of scene were swift and simple. But this configuration encountered some acoustical problems. Those singing from the rear platform were significantly muffled in comparison with those singing down-stage. And often the band dominated even these strong voices.
There was a little updating done, too, which I think was a mistake. The stay-at-home wife, the suburban malaise, indeed the whole theme of the piece is distinctly pre-Betty Friedan. To give us short skirts, cell-phones, lap-tops and Izods in the office is decidedly anachronistic.
Despite its shortcomings I am so pleased that Union Avenue decided to do this small early Bernstein piece. It has some very memorable music in it; I saw it over fifty years ago in college, and there are phrases from it that have never left my memory.
Three years after writing "Trouble in Tahiti", Bernstein entered what for me were his anni mirabilorum: 1956 (the incomparable "Candide") and 1957 ("West Side Story"). Yet in 1983 he returned to write A Quiet Place, which is a sequel to "Trouble in Tahiti". It shows us Sam and his children thirty years later—and after Dinah’s death. "A Quiet Place" was originally presented as a one-act, but Bernstein later incorporated "Trouble in Tahiti" into "A Quiet Place", making this story his only opera other than Candide.
The second half of the Union Avenue evening was pure delight—a baker’s dozen of songs mostly from Bernstein’s Broadway shows. We are so accustomed to the usual cabaret template: one featured singer and one guest artist (who shares a song or two and might even have a solo). In this Bernstein cabaret we are treated to five—count them, five—superb voices. There is variety—solos, duets, and ensemble. (I was reminded of the excellent evening of cabaret that the Orange Girls presented five years ago.)
Union Avenue’s Bernstein cabaret opened with a very bracing, bright “Tonight” from "West Side Story" with the full cast. Then each singer had a chance to shine individually—and shine they did. Clark Sturdevant sang an almost definitive “Maria”. Elise LaBarge and the glowingly cheerful Anthony Heinemann did a lovely comic “Carried Away” (from "On the Town") in which a psychiatrist and his client find themselves switching roles. Kara Cornell sang a lovely “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s "Mass", as well as the comic “I Can Cook Too” in which she produces a surprising bounty of lolli-pops from somewhere under her clothing. Ian Greenlaw did great justice to a couple of downbeat songs from "On the Town" and "Songfest".
But I must say that, from among all this bright talent, Elise LaBarge ran away with my ears—and my heart. (And were I a bull I’m sure she’d have got my tail too, so complete was her triumph over me.) Her splendid pure soprano is bell-clear, her diction makes every syllable as precise as a well-cut diamond. Her voice is trained in opera, yet it is nonetheless perfectly at home in this Broadway genre. Moreover she has a dancer’s crisp movement and she projects that irresistible personality to the back row.
So the cabaret half of the evening was well worth the price of admission by itself.
And we got a fascinating look into early Bernstein opera for free.