Leonard Bernstein – Arias and Barcarolles … Trouble in Tahiti

Arias and Barcarolles – eight songs for mezzo-soprano and baritone [in arrangement by Bright Sheng for five solo strings and percussion]
Trouble in Tahiti – Opera in one act of seven scenes, to a libretto by the composer [London premiere of a reduced orchestration prepared by Garth Sunderland]

Dinah – Catherine Hopper
Sam – Dean Robinson

Chorus in Trouble in Tahiti: Jane Harrington (soprano), Ashley Catling (tenor) & Quentin Hayes (baritone)

Psappha Ensemble
Nicholas Kok

Elaine Tyler-Hall – Director
Aaron Marsden – Designer
Marc Rosette – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 26 March, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Leonard Bernstein.  Photograph: Christina Burton, courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office, IncPart of the Southbank Centre’s elongated “Bernstein Project”, this event marked the halfway point of the series with works from the beginning and from the end of his career. Leonard Bernstein composed “Arias and Barcarolles” originally for piano duet and four solo singers, rather like Brahms’s “Liebeslieder” waltzes, which was then recast by the Chinese musician Bright Sheng for two singers, strings and percussion. The eight songs (six of them to texts by Bernstein) are dedicated to family and friends and cover significant events and aspects of life – birth, love, death, relationships. Not having the texts to hand, and with the words coming through only fitfully, one could only hazard a guess as to their content, although, if the music is anything to go by, they were reflective, intimate and self-centred. The music is a learned, world-weary pastiche, very clever, even smart-aleck, but at the expense of identity.

Perhaps the piano version would have suited the intimate, sophisticated style better than the arty and vaguely orientalised strings and percussion version, but of all the influences coming at one, the clearest was Sondheim at his most knowing and metropolitan. The two singers, Catherine Hopper and Dean Robinson acting out the songs in a sort of dialogue, didn’t really project the cool, regretful, self-absorbed world this sort of music evokes, and it all seemed a bit arch and tired – and revisits the view that Bernstein towards the end of his life lost his way as a composer.

‘Trouble in Tahiti‘, however, is brimming with life, wit, good tunes and plenty of them, and sharp satire – a “Desperate Housewives” prototype. It’s a wonderful work, written for television and based on Bernstein’s parents’ marriage. Apart from this fairly minimal staging, there was a very good one from the Second Movement opera company, but I think that is it, at least in London, for many years.

Dinah and Sam are stuck in their tired marriage and betrayed by the suburban American dream. She goes to her shrink; he goes to the gym. In his introduction, Humphrey Burton, the voice of Bernstein here on Earth, described it as a one-act play by Strindberg but with more jokes. Catherine Hopper and Dean Robinson certainly caught the quiet desperation, she very fine in her analysis session, ‘There is a garden’, but less assured in the show-stopping ’Island Magic’ song that gives the opera its title. Dean Robinson just didn’t project Sam’s macho bluster; he needs to be a bright, unquestioning Republican-style figure with plenty of red-neck potential, and there was cautiousness in both of them suggesting lack of rehearsal time. The three-part, close-harmony chorus was excellent (Jane Harrington was also in the Second Movement production), catching Bernstein’s wry, smiley, observant nuances perfectly. The production was nifty and worked well within its limits, and Nicholas Kok got the point of this opera-musical hybrid with some sharply characterised and energised playing from the Psappha Ensemble, and the reduced orchestration sounded very stylish.

Bernstein knew the value of this piece when he incorporated it into his 1983 three-act opera “A Quiet Place”, but the overwrought scenario doesn’t, in the end, do the bittersweet tenderness of ‘Tahiti’ many favours, except to present it as grand opera, which is not really the point.

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