Opera Review: TROUBLE IN TAHITI (Pacific Opera Project)

by Tony Frankel on August 16, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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Although the run of Pacific Opera Project’s Trouble in Tahiti was two days long, I had to check out this new company whose mission it is to use local talent and bring affordable opera to Los Angeles. With only one piano accompanying five singers in the overheated Santa Monica Playhouse, there were enough glimmers of professional, bravura singing that you would be well-advised to check out their next project – one which is much more substantial than Leonard Bernstein’s one-act: Don Giovanni at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica on September 23, 25, 30 and October 1 and 2, 2011, which will be with orchestra, in Italian, with supertitles.

Trouble in Tahiti - Pacific Opera Project

There is little plot in Bernstein’s 40-minute Trouble in Tahiti: We see a day in the life of Sam (Phil Meyer) and Dinah (Jessica Mamey), a discontented 1950s’ couple with a seemingly wonderful life who explore the depth of their longing and disconnection. With songs that range from Broadway to jazz to opera, a three-person chorus pops up like a radio commercial for the American Dream, only to be interrupted by an egomaniacal Sam or a grieving Dinah (the chorus are Tara Alexander, Robert Norman and Ryan Reithmeier).

Trouble in Tahiti - Pacific Opera Project

It’s little wonder that this opera is rarely seen, not just because of its length, but it ends with little hope for this troubled marriage (later, Bernstein would incorporate Tahiti as a flashback into A Quiet Place (1983), since both works feature some of the same characters, presumably based on Bernstein’s own parents). It’s a fascinating work because there is a smooth, jazzy swing that harkens back to On The Town (1944) and pulsating, pounding and intricate syncopations which serve as a prognosticator for West Side Story (1957). And as for the operatic elements, Bernstein would begin composing Candide (1956), his gloriously magnificent operetta, the year after Tahiti premiered.

I’m glad to say that Pacific Opera Project, under the direction of Josh Shaw (who also designed the delightful sets), truly nailed a piece that is musically complicated, to say the least. Meyer triumphed when tackling the tricky triplets in his song at the gym and Mamey captivated in the great number, “What a Movie.” The chorus handled the wicked harmonies with aplomb while music director and pianist Stephen Karr dexterously commanded the buzzing, jumping and bumping of Bernstein’s score.

Trouble in Tahiti - Pacific Opera Project

Less successful was the opening montage of Bernstein songs which, oddly enough, contained nothing from Candide. It was terrific to hear nuggets of gold from On The Town and Wonderful Town, and the delivery of the oddly edited numbers was occasionally delightful, but the prelude felt rushed and clipped, with some truly bizarre phrasing and breathiness from a few of the singers (though it should be noted that they had just finished another performance). Plus, in such a small space, the choreography was distracting. A very fun addition was new lyrics written for “What a Waste,” in which performers made fun of their careers.

All in all, a successful evening: certainly one that has whetted my appetite. I’m not a huge opera fan, but nevertheless, I can’t wait to see what they do with Don Giovanni.

Trouble in Tahiti
Santa Monica Playhouse 7/29, 2011; and Vitello’s, Studio City 7/30, 2011
for more shows, visit POP

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