REVIEW: 'TROUBLEfuturesongs' with Leonard Bernstein's 'Trouble in Tahiti' by Underworld Productions Opera

By Jon Sobel on May 20, 2014 02:02 PM EDT

Composer Thomas Deneuville was raised in Tahiti, so it's fitting that his operatic cycle Outerborough Songs should receive its stage premiere on a bill with Leonard Bernstein's 1951 suburban-angst opera Trouble in Tahiti.

Outerborough Songs is Deneuville's striking setting of three poems by D. Nurkse centering on lives in New York City's outer boroughs, particularly Brooklyn. At the last of three performances at Symphony Space, soprano Gian-Carla Tisera--accompanied only by Marco Marino on electric guitar--called on all her substantial vocal power and clarity, and equal amounts of glamour and grit, to truly live the music and the words. Nurkse's rocky lines are charged with thinly electric emotion and flecked with words that carom from "Canarsie" and "septic tanks" to "underwater mountains." Tisera embodied all, deliciously waxing and waning through three poems and the characters who speak them. The musical motifs, derived from rock, flamenco and heavy metal, melded surprisingly well with Tisera's expressive soprano. Altogether it was a small bright gem of a performance.

The evening'g other table-setter, also a mere 10 minutes long, was a more traditionally operatic if highly abbreviated setting of the savage myth of Tereus, Procne and Philomela from Ovid's Metamorphoses. "Had I yet my voice…" cries Philomel, her bloodstained cloak betraying the double attack she has suffered at the hands of her rapacious brother-in-law, the Thracian king Tereus. Composer Justine F. Chen and librettist Ken Gass give stunning voice to the voiceless victim, raped and with her tongue severed so she can't tell what happened to anyone, especially Procne, her sister and Tereus's wife.

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie McGuire gave Philomel a thick and tragic tone which contrasted nicely with Miran Robarts's sweet slender soprano as Procne and also with Brian Long's milquetoasty Tereus, who came across as the banality of evil personified rather than Ovid's fierce warrior-king. But then this is not a period piece; it's 10 minutes out of time. Churning piano underlies Philomel's piercing peaks of melody as the tale is cut off halfway through, the sisters' horrid revenge merely suggested. (Or left for a future expanded version).

McGuire returned in the evening's main event as Dinah opposite bass-baritone Isaac Grier's Sam. Leonard Bernstein wrote the one-act Trouble in Tahiti between his On the Town and West Side Story Broadway successes. It's a true opera, through-sung except for a few lines, and it bears Bernstein's melodic and rhythmic marks all over it. Unlike those big Broadway musicals, it's a very intimate work; I felt privy to Bernstein's personal observations and feelings as I viewed and heard his story of a suburban couple, alienated from one another, grasping at slim hopes for a rekindling of their once-passionate relationship.

Bernstein strung his own libretto upon jazzy rhythms and singable melodies, with humor and close harmonies courtesy of a three-person "Greek choir" singing jingles and scatting. Alas, the brass in Mark Shapiro's small, sturdy chamber orchestra, whose vast range extended from piccolo to contrabassoon, drowned out some of the vocals in Symphony Space's downstairs Leonard Nimoy Thalia theater, a space far from ideally structured for even a small-scale opera production. Nonetheless McGuire and Grier were able to powerfully convey the uncertainty and agita of the supposedly ideal suburban lifestyle symbolized by the miniature white house beneath their kitchen table and caricatured by the Chorus's trippingly delivered commercial-esque ditties.

McGuire was captivating and convincing in Dinah's showpiece "There Is a Garden" with its lovely, deceptively simple melody. And her knack for emotional evolution shone in the terrific "What a Movie," in which Dinah brutally mocks a terrible movie-musical she's just seen (called "Trouble in Tahiti") but gradually and ineluctably gets swept up in its romance as she reflects on its silly story. Grier in turn was fittingly sturdy and strong in his showpiece explaining the "law about men" that anoints some winners and others losers. "Men are created unequal!" intones this preternaturally successful businessman who's so out of touch with his emotional life he can't even recall whether he's had a dalliance with his secretary.

Aside from the acoustical imbalance noted above, this was an admirable and thoroughly enjoyable staging of a Bernstein treasure too seldom revived. Both a period piece and timeless commentary on human relationships, as staged cleverly by Artistic Director Gina Crusco it proved an excellent choice for Underworld Productions Opera.

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TagsLeonard Bernstein, Trouble in Tahiti, Underworld Productions Opera, Opera, Opera

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