By Elsa Tranter
Photo Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo
In the continuation for a second year of the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, San Francisco’s Opera Parallele and SFJAZZ teamed up this week for a world premiere production that combines Bernstein’s 1951 one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” with Jake Heggie’s 2005 work “At the Statue of Venus”. It was an altogether satisfying afternoon of music and theater.
The afternoon began with a prelude of Bernstein orchestral music from “West Side Story”, as the stage was transformed into a museum, with 1950s patrons stopping to admire the statue of Venus. One of those was the dashingly dressed Sam, singing ‘Something’s Coming…’ in a compelling baritone voice. We knew that ‘something’ was coming for us too. With that, Venus, in the persona of the lithe Steffi Cheong, a member of a number of Bay Area dance companies, came to life to dance ‘The Unanswered Question’, the music of Charles Ives.
Following her return to her statued position, a woman, Rose, entered the museum to wait for a blind date ‘at the Statue of Venus’. The role was sung superbly by American mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier, who has had many roles in San Francisco as well as at LA Opera, Dallas Opera and elsewhere. Her emotions ran the gamut from self-deprecation (why did I wear slacks) to rhapsodizing about finding her true love and living happily ever after with him. It was a brilliant monologue, written by the Tony-Award winning playwright Terrence McNally (who also wrote the libretto for the opera ‘Dead Man Walking’ with composer Jake Heggie). The music was timeless in its beauty, modern without being distractingly so, and very accessible; and Ms Rapier’s voice was up to the challenge; her acting skill well-balanced her lustrous voice. One ached for her throughout the performance, while alternately laughing at the humor in the lyrics. It was a show-stopper of a performance. And, at the very end, Sam, Kyle Albertson, the man who earlier had sung ‘Something’s Coming’ finally appeared and they shook hands. This piece, not really an opera, was commissioned for the opening of Opera Colorado and was written with Renée Fleming in mind (although she did not sing at its premiere). In its original performance, it was a piece for mezzo-soprano and piano; the orchestration came later.
At intermission, most of us stayed in our seats because on the overhead screen there appeared the middle-aged Leonard Bernstein, giving one of his famous Norton Lectures at Harvard University in 1973 on the subject of ‘The Unanswered Question’ (the Ives piece we had heard danced to): music plus linguistics, poetry, philosophy and other related subjects. The lecture continued through the whole intermission, while the set was changed from museum to suburbia on a rotating Lazy Susan (so 1950s) which included the kitchen, the office, and the gym. And it had to compete with the orchestra tuning up – all a bit surreal but entertaining.
Act II “Trouble in Tahiti”, Bernstein’s only foray into writing both words and music, featured the same couple, she now called Dinah, he still called Sam, perhaps 10 years later, when the blush was certainly off the rose of their marriage. Dinah and Sam’s duets, almost simultaneously humorous and heart-breaking (especially for someone who has been through the ups and downs of marriage) were stunningly performed by Ms. Rapier and Mr. Albertson, an American baritone who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera as well as San Francisco and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Their body language, their acting, their voices, were perfectly matched and conveyed the gamut of emotions. In addition to the clever revolving set, there were mix media screen montages reminiscent of the 50s, combining to make the most of the limited space, and their clothes (especially hers) were perfect for the 1950s. Added to the performance was the jazzy trio of soprano Krista Wigle, tenor Andres Ramirez, and baritone Bradley Kynard. Their ‘Greek chorus’ comments were right on the money and they sang beautifully in a period style.
Nicole Paiement, artistic director and founder of Opera Parallele conducted a briskly paced performance with an excellent 22 piece orchestra. Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel assisted by Amy Seiwert, choreographer, David Murakami projection designer, Christine Crook, costume designer, Dave Dunning, scenic designer and Matthew Antaky, lighting designer, pulled off a miracle, getting so much in the small space of SFJAZZ. It was a rich and fulfilling afternoon. Bravi tutti! Alas, there are no more performances.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.