Trouble in Tahiti, Hand of Bridge, SF

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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‘Trouble in Tahiti’

Music and text by Leonard Bernstein

‘Hand of Bridge’

Music by Samuel Barber, text by Gian Carlo Menotti

Opera Parallèle
Conducted by Nicole Paiement
Conceived and directed by Brian Staufenbiel
April 26-28, 2013

Don Draper would have felt right at home. Part “Mad Men,” part opera, part Broadway, Opera Parallèle’s double bill of Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti,” with the 10 minute Samuel Barber/Gian Carlo Menotti “Hand of Bridge” as a curtain raiser (except there was no curtain) was so 60s darling, right down to the omnipresent cigarettes, martinis and marital discontent.

Spunky little Opera Parallèle, which specializes in presenting contemporary chamber works, bless it, just gets better and better with each production. Even this one, mounted at the cavernous, somewhat inhospitable Z Space, made use of a stage turntable to excellent advantage in the multi-locale “Tahiti” and placed Nicole Paiement’s excellent orchestra unobtrusively to the side. The five singers were outstanding, with special kudos to “Tahiti” leads Eugene Brancoveanu – a staple of this troupe since it was formed – and Lisa Chavez, a soprano to die for, especially in her aria “Who Is There for Me to Love?” in “Hand of Bridge.” The other performers: Krista Wigle, Andres Ramirez in “Hand of Bridge” joined by Randall Bunnell in “Tahiti” also were very good in a variety of roles.

“Hand of Bridge” would simply be an amusing trifle, were it not for the gorgeous music by the great Barber. Menotti’s lyrics are clever and to the point as two couples sit down (with their martinis and cigarettes) to their regular game of bridge, each voicing their inner thoughts, fears and dreams to the punctuation of “two hearts” and “your deal.” Sally (Wigle) starts things off with “I want that hat of peacock feathers” which shows where her head is. Her husband (Ramirez) longs for a real or imaginary lover and the other man (Brancoveanu) wants riches, palaces, a harem of slave girls and boys. Only Chavez, as a woman whose mother is dying, moves us in the aforementioned “Who Is There for Me to Love?” – a lyrical rumination on the emptiness of all of their lives, elegantly sung.

It’s a perfect companion to “Trouble in Tahiti,” which immediately followed. Exploring the same themes – boredom and disillusion in suburbia, this piece is pure Bernstein, jazzy, lyrical, with moments that will recall the later score of “West Side Story” and a repeated phrase – “a quiet place” – that the protagonists seek, that just happens to be the name of another Bernstein opera, actually a sequel to this one.

Opening with a delicious trio about “little white houses” in Scarsdale, Highland Park, Bloomfield Hills, Beverly Hills, wherever the American Dream is lived out in suburbia, the action focuses on Dinah (Chavez), a bored housewife, and Sam, her highly competitive husband (Brancoveanu), who expends his prodigious energy at the office and the gym and has nothing left for his home life. They bicker endlessly, or sit in “screaming silence” and both have nostalgia for the time, a decade earlier, when they were everything to each other. It is a moving portrait of a marriage gone stale.

After Dinah visits her analyst (another 1960s benchmark), she goes to the movies because that’s what unhappy housewives did in the ‘60s (and ’50s and ’40s) to escape their troubles. This time the Hollywood dream factory has churned out a clunker called “Trouble in Tahiti,” reminiscent of an old Esther Williams-Fernando Lamas epic. In a stroke of genius, Opera Parallèle has cast its own singers in the film. And it is hilarious. Brancoveanu is a shipwrecked naval officer, Chavez the grass-skirted beauty who catches his eye and everybody else doubles as bloodthirsty islanders and rescuing mariners (video and media by David Murakami, Sam Clevenger and Tal Kamran). It’s a good thing the movie is silent because the real-life audience is laughing so hard you wouldn’t be able to hear anything anyway.

But there are terrific things to hear before and after the film interlude: Sam and Dinah’s poignant duet of estrangement, “Why Did I Have to Lie?” when they meet on a street by chance and can’t wait to get away; the jazzy interludes of the trio, delivered in front of a mike as if they were singing a radio jingle; Dinah’s sad recital of a dream in the doctor’s office as the impassive shrink shrugs and looks at his watch.

“Trouble in Tahiti” is rarely performed – I heard it once on the radio and was captivated but have never encountered it since – and “Hand of Bridge” is practically unknown. Bravo to Opera Parallèle for rescuing these and other treasures from the junk heap of operatic oblivion.

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