This program of Leonard Bernstein’s vocal music was highlighted by Trouble in Tahiti, directed by Jamie Bernstein, the composer’s daughter.
Beforehand she introduced nine of her father’s songs, for which Alexandra Silber and Nathan Gunn were joined by the other singers, with Craig Ketter on piano. Silber led off brilliantly with the humorous ‘I Hate Music!’ (from the eponymous cycle). William Ferguson then gave a highly amusing account, with appropriate gestures, of ‘Rabbit at Top Speed’ (La Bonne Cuisine), the texts being recipes from a cookbook; Ferguson repeated the song, this time in French. Gunn followed with a gorgeous rendition of ‘To What You Said’ (Songfest), a touching setting of Walt Whitman. The remaining selections were drawn from theatre scores, including numbers cut from shows before they reached Broadway – ‘Ain’t Got No Tears Left’ (On the Town; Ellie Fishman), and ‘Like Everybody Else’ (West Side Story; Fishman, Ferguson and Christopher Dylan Herbert). Gunn was again outstanding in ‘A Quiet Girl’ (Wonderful Town); Fishman was charming in ‘Peter, Peter’ from incidental music for James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; and Herbert was quite moving in ‘A Simple Song’ from Mass. The first half of the program ended with all the singers (plus Jamie) joining in ‘Take Care of this House’ from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – a flop in 1976, but with a message that feels quite timely now.
This performance of Trouble in Tahiti was a terrific success, Silber and Gunn convincing in their portrayals of Dinah and Sam, whose troubled marriage is anything but the suburban American dream sarcastically lauded by a trio who offer commentary in the fashion of a Greek Chorus, singing in the style of radio-commercial jingles. The couple cannot get through their breakfast without bickering. Sam denies having an affair with his secretary, and says that he must compete in a handball tournament, and so cannot attend their son Junior’s school play that afternoon. Sam begrudgingly gives Dinah money to pay her psychoanalyst, and ignores her suggestion that he go too. When, after Sam’s morning at his office and Dinah’s session with her analyst, the two meet by chance on the street, each pretends to have a lunch appointment in order to avoid dining together and Dinah backs away from Sam’s attempt at a parting kiss.
Gunn and Silber were terrific in arias describing their respective activities of the afternoon, when neither of them attends the play. As Sam polishes the trophy for winning the handball tournament, he sings powerfully that ‘There’s a Law’ by which men are predestined either to be failures or, like him, to always succeed, but later, as he returns home, he sings of another law that requires even winners to pay a steep price for success. Meanwhile, Dinah has gone to see a movie, Trouble in Tahiti, which she regards as terrible, but as she describes it to a stranger in a hat shop, she gets caught up in its tacky romantic atmosphere in a wonderfully comic scene in which she sings and sways to ‘Island Magic’. In the final scene, after dinner, they try to communicate but are still largely unsuccessful. Sam suggests going to see the movie, and Dinah, surprisingly, agrees, but as they prepare to leave she again rebuffs his attempt at a kiss.
Bernstein’s score reflects the sounds and rhythms of suburban life in post-World War Two America, and also probes the disaffection and discord that may lie beneath the surface. Sam and Dinah often sing simultaneously, but almost never together, resulting in striking counterpoint. The story’s most optimistic note comes in Dinah’s dream, recounted to her analyst, of “a quiet place” (a future Bernstein opera), but which they seem unlikely to achieve as the opera ends. The music, quite characteristic of Bernstein’s then still-evolving style, was wonderfully played by a fifteen-piece ensemble – reduced nearly by half from the original scoring – with Charles Prince conducting excellently.