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Rodney Gilfry (Sam), Beth Clayton (Dinah) and Moritz Becker (Sohn) [Photo by Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bavarian State Opera]
22 Jul 2009

Bought and Paid-for Magic — Bernstein Tahiti in Munich’s Cuvilliès Theater

There she is, in her inch or two of sarong, floating, floating…Oh, excuse me, where was I?

Leonard Bernstein: Trouble in Tahiti

Dinah: Beth Clayton; Sam: Rodney Gilfry; Jazztrio: Angela Brower, Jeffrey Behrens and Todd Boyce. Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Conductor: Kent Nagano. Production Schorsch Kamerun. Set: Constanze Kümmel. Costumes: Tabea Braun. Lighting Michael Bauer. Video: Jo Schramm. Choreography: Volker Michl. Dramaturgy Andrea Schönhofer.

Above: Rodney Gilfry (Sam), Beth Clayton (Dinah) and Moritz Becker (Sohn)

All photos by Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bavarian State Opera


Mozart premiered his Idomeneo in the over-the-top rococco jewel-box Cuvilliès Theater, which is named after its designer, the French dwarf / Bavarian court jester / architect. Leonard Bernstein’s 1952 pocket-sized opera Trouble in Tahiti about a loveless American couple in nameless Suburbia would seem far removed from the world which gave rise to this extravagant pocket-sized opera house. And yet — it somehow made tremendous sense to present there. The “bought and paid-for magic” of transparently ridiculous Hollywood daydreams Bernstein wrote about seems oddly at home with Bavarian rococo. If only that the production concept had been less confused!

Bernstein dedicated his seven-scene Trouble in Tahiti to his friend Marc Blitzstein, whose succès de scandale, Cradle Will Rock, Bernstein had set out to “out-cradle” in his first attempt at composing “the great American opera.” The composer wrote the libretto himself. Bernstein may have downplayed emulating Blitzstein’s Marxist principles, but certainly followed him in attempting to forge a music in vernacular popular musical styles of the day rather than more classical operatic style.

In an interview in his office the morning of the third and last performance of the Bernstein on July 10th, Bavarian State Opera Music Director Kent Nagano joked the new Tahiti production, coming a mere two days after the new Wagner opera production he’d conducted at the National Theater, was actually Lohengrin, part 2.

Both operas feature a neglected and non-singing child, although Tahiti’s semi-unnamed “Junior” is simply ignored as both parents miss his debut in the school play. (This is the autobiographical kernel of Bernstein’s work, his never-forgotten bitterness at his own parents for not showing up for his debut as soloist in Grieg’s Piano Concerto with his Boston Latin School Orchestra. The two characters even originally were given the same names as his parents, but at least changed the wife’s name from Jennie to Dinah. Sam remained Sam.) The neglected child in the Wagner, is of course a bit more ponderous, in that the silent Gottfried (not murdered by his sister at all, but hidden in plain sight as a swan!) is hailed as the Führer of the future.

I couldn’t help wondering, however, if it might not have been better to switch the concepts of these two very different productions: The new production of Lohengrin posited the main character as a “visionary” architect. If Trouble in Tahiti really had to have added stage action, an architect creating multiple soulless tract houses in suburbia would have made a great deal of sense! And imagine if Lohengrin had been set in the abandoned amusement park which showed up (to little purpose) in Tahiti the swan would have made perfect sense! Or the silent, walking (or deflated) blow-up doll versions of several of the characters (too even less purpose) which appeared in the Bernstein, had been employed in the Wagner. It would have been so much fun to have blow-up versions of Ortrud and Telaramond deflate.. And might perhaps the giant lizard in Tahiti make more sense as a wannabe swan?

Tahiti_Munich.gifA scene from Trouble in Tahiti

For Tahiti, which is about the spiritual emptiness that acquisition of things imposes, it seems wrong-headed in the extreme to have a production which uses just about every effect and resource conceivable, however distracting, for minimal, momentary effect. On the tiny stage, the singers seemed to be dealing with a traffic jam, aside from the characters and superfluous extras there were blow-up dolls of the characters, even an turntable roundelay set. A giant lizard. A giant polka-dot toadstool. The director left no trick untried. At one point, even the chandeliers over the audience’s heads were made to dance up and down and flash on and off in time to the music for reasons which escaped me. So much business, the music often got lost. In attempting to depict the spiritual hollowness that comes a life lived from possessions alone, this production becomes the problem it wishes to describe.

Bernstein’s original stage requirements actually insist on something quite different: “Simplicity of execution should be the keynote throughout. Much depends upon precise and imaginative lighting... The composer has conceived as cartoon-like sketches — bold, suggestive, and charming. They should be black and white, almost like a child’s version of each scene... The merest suggestion of skyscrapers, a traffic light, etc., will suffice.... The TRIO should wear evening clothes....[Only black and white should be used.] The only note of color in the visual production is furnished by the clothes of the couple...”

This production violated virtually every one of these express wishes of the composer, to little effect. Moreover, Bernstein did not need or expect the son to appear onstage.

Sometimes less is more. As an attack on consumerism, Bernstein tried something quite remarkable and paradoxical in this work: despite the deliberately pop-ish music, it adheres to the classical unities — the action takes place on a single day, explicitly identifying the spiritual ideas with the morning, afternoon, evening, there are only two singing characters, plus a three-voice trio (“a Greek Chorus born of radio commercials” in the description of the composer). The plan harks back to the Camerata which gave birth to opera in the first place, as does Bernstein’s choice of American vernacular as the musical style of choice.

Endearing oddnesses fill this score: The awkward duet where the husband and wife encounter each other by accident on the street and lie to each other about what they’re doing is marked in the score “Tempo di ‘Gymnopédie’“ — an interesting tip of the hat to Eric Satie. In fact, there are many references to other composers in this work. The ending, for example, is a blatant overreach towards the final scene of Wozzeck although the tragedy of this opera and the hurt to the child in question hardly rise to the level of the Berg opera. Tahiti does not lack for critics. Its final scene here strives for a grandiosity of which he was not yet capable, at least not until the La Bohème-like finale of West Side Story. But for me, it’s largely only in the grand opera part of the quotient that he failed here. Outside of that, what he did achieve is vivid and substantial indeed. “Trouble in Tahiti” is a masterpiece of its kind, and it remains fascinating to hear the bursting potential of this 1952 time-capsule from the start of the composer’s career.

Tahiti_Munich_02.gifBeth Clayton (Dinah)

Tahiti was the eleventh new production to be conducted by Kent Nagano since his appointment as Music Director. These performances marked the world premiere of the new reduced-orchestration (for 14 musicians, instead of Bernstein’s original 21) by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Nagano is utterly at home conducting this music, fluid and convincing, (as he was also with the Lohengrin two days later). Rather than the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, however, for this production the players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra were in the pit, and they responded spectacularly well and with a quite stunningly precise purity of intonation. Sunderland’s new arrangement did not seem to have made much compromise of the music, with perhaps only the introduction to Sam’s aria excepted.

The chorus (Angela Brower, Jeffrey Behrens, Todd Boyce) — clown make-up aside — sang wonderfully, beautifully blending their voices to a clear cohesive unit and precise diction, moreover perfectly conveying the musicality of the morning, midday, afternoon and twilight progression of their numbers. The soloists however, were less impressive, although one wonders what they might have done if they’d been allowed to concentrate on singing and not have to cope with all the unnecessary distractions on the stage. Beth Clayton was a good but not tremendously dynamic Dinah. Interestingly, she did not use the “in South Pacific accent” Bernstein stipulated in his score to describe how she is to imitate the “natives’“ singing in her eponymous show-stopper about the imaginary Hollywood South Seas escapist film she’s just seen. (Yes it is racist, and Bernstein, an expert on racism in the arts — that was the topic of his senior Harvard thesis — deliberately intended the shock and humor of that effect, not watered down as it was here.) Rodney Gilfrey had fine diction but trouble being heard as well as a distressingly wide vibrato in held notes in the role of Sam. His physical tightness — was it the small stage? or the odd changes of meter of his music? bad back? — made Sam seem less than the “winner” he is supposed to embody.

The biggest flaw of this Tahiti, however, was the stillborn curtain-raiser director Schorsch Kamerun inserted to introduce the Bernstein. Called “Bevor der Ärger richtig losgeht...” (Before the Trouble Gets Going...), This consisted of four German punk songs with music by David R. Coleman to texts by four different German punk bands: “Diese Menscehn sind ehrlich” (These people are honest) by Die Goldenen Zitronen (The Golden Lemons, the band Mr. Kamerun had sung with in the 1970’s), F.S.K.’s “Das is der morderne Welt” (This is the modern world), as well as “Angst macht keinen Lärm” (Fear makes no noise) by Angeschissen (Shit-upon), and “Es regnet Kaviar” (It’s raining caviar) by Tolerantes Brandenburg (Tolerant Brandenburg). While Bernstein’s 40-minute opera does require something else to make a full evening, this cringe-inducing material was not it. These four punk songs were accompanied by silent video by Jo Schramm of a clown opening a book which displayed a film of imagined disputes between the opera characters (as themselves or as blow-up dolls) in the 1960’s style suburban living room set of the first scene. The clown, not able to do much other look malevolent, eventually just sank his teeth into the book. The set itself was only revealed after the curtain was raised. Over the fireplace was a big painting of a smiley face, and the first action of Dinah was to rotate its mouth from frown to smile.

At the end of his career, Bernstein folded this earlier work into a full-scale opera named after one of Dinah’s songs here, “A Quiet Place.” In the late work, thirty years have gone by, Dinah has died (off-stage) in a car crash, and the family gathers for her funeral. Junior is gay and possibly psychotic and has a sister, Dede, who has married his former lover François. Sam is alienated from everyone. All seek reconciliation. The work has yet to succeed in performance. “I worked with Bernstein when he did A Quiet Place’ in Vienna, Nagano confided with a sigh. “It’s a score that remains on my piano. It’s a visionary work, and like all visionary works, it may someday be better understood.”

A word of praise on a separate note: For those of us who feel that opera is a significant artistic endeavor, one of the great joys of all productions of the Bavarian State Opera is each production is accompanied by an astonishingly hefty, well-produced book filled with not just the libretto text, but also thought-provoking background essays on the work and the production also with additional diverse historical texts which are quite substantial and enlightening (that is, if one reads German). The book for Trouble in Tahiti, for example, is at pains to place this work in its proper context musical, social, political and historic context. This is particularly important to understand for this work, as polymath and polyglot Bernstein intended this work to be an explicitly American opera, eschewing European conventions while favoring — to the extent possible — nativist vernacular. He aimed to elide the full range of compositional alternatives to create an unbroken continuum from popular music to grand opera. To my surprise, the German translation of Bernstein’s quite vernacular 1952 libretto, included in this book, seems to work very well.

Raphael Mostel © 2009

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