Leonard Bernstein’s take on commercialism and a failed marriage

A scene from “Trouble in Tahiti” at Ravinia (from left): Michelle Areyzaga, Nathaniel Olson, Patricia Racette, and Nils Nilsen.  (Photo courtesy of Ravinia Festival/Patrick Gipson)

Classical Music Critic

Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. For the past year or more, musical organizations around the world have held special concerts, series, or events to commemorate the milestone, and many will continue in the weeks and months ahead.

Last Thursday, just days before Bernstein’s birthday, the Ravinia Festival offered two performances in one day of the American composer-conductor’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” in the Martin Theater.

The seven-scene opera, which lasts about 45 minutes, is not one of Bernstein’s more successful works, at least measured by performance frequency. It takes a hard look at suburban life in the early 1950s by examining a day in the life of an unhappy couple, who by rights ought to be fulfilled and satisfied. Sam and Dinah have a comfortable home in a safe and prestigious neighborhood. They have a son who enjoys school and is proud to have a major role in his school play. The couple have money, status, and security, yet they are restless, worried, and lonely, their marriage having become a fragile shell. Neither knows how to draw upon the other for support or affection. It is a marriage in crisis.

Strangely enough, Bernstein began writing the opera on his honeymoon, just after he married Felicia Montealegre in September of 1951. While the opera couple who are reduced to sniping at each other are widely believed to be based on the composer’s parents, it can hardly have been encouraging to his new wife that having embarked on marriage her husband felt compelled to create an opera which showcased a couple who couldn’t make their marriage work.

Ravinia cast two strong singing actors to portray Dinah and Sam: American Patricia Racette and Polish-Brazilian Paulo Szot. Both of them plunged deep into the psyches of the troubled couple, drawing out loneliness and despair, as well as the slim hopes for a return to happiness.

Racette offered a strong performance of a desperately unhappy wife. Her expressions of deep frustrations trigger the same in her husband, making their bickering highly credible. Racette can deliver sung lines in ways that render them completely conversational. But she also turned on the drama, notably in the opera’s most beautiful music that takes place in Scene 3. Here she tells her psychiatrist of a dream she had of a beautiful garden. The garden is clearly a metaphor for the marriage she thinks she is losing or already lost. Yet her yearning for the beauty and safety of that garden was immensely touching.

Szot is a powerful singer and he deployed those strengths in creating a Sam who leans on his achievements, at the office and in the gym, in an attempt to maintain his bearings in a world that seems to be crumbling around him. He sees his machismo as an asset, even as he learns that his treatment of his secretary verges on sexual harassment. Sam provides his wife with the creature comforts but receives no comfort from Dinah in return, leaving him puzzled and pushing him further into a way of life that offers him empty proofs of his manliness.

In the scene where he skips his son’s play to spend time at a sports tournament, Szot turns on the testosterone as he rages about his own power, with no one to appreciate his achievement. Szot was not only powerful but also scary, yet we felt anguish for his inner confusion.

Szot’s voice is rich and full of color, and it boomed throughout the Martin Theater. His English language accent was a little awkward at times, and he more than once substituted a singular noun for a plural and vice versa.

Bernstein peppers the opera with a vocal trio (soprano, tenor, baritone) played by Michelle Areyzaga, Nils Nilsen, and Nathaniel Olson. Most of the jazz-inspired music of the piece is put into their Greek chorus, as they comment upon the action in front of us. This music is the least memorable of the piece, and the text for the trio is repetitive, constantly invoking the names of famous rich American suburbs (Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, Beverly Hills, and even Ravinia’s own Highland Park).

The jaunty music is designed to be rather jarring, as it attempts to mimic commercial jingles: ubiquitous, endlessly cheery, and empty. The trio sang well, although they didn’t always seem to operate as a unit, but more like three individuals singing at the same time. All three of them wore mics, which hardly seemed necessary in such a small space.

“Trouble in Tahiti” is the name of a film that plays a part in the opera. It’s a happy musical that mashes up cultures in a mindless way which reflects no one in any real place. The false happiness of the movie mirrors the false happiness of the marriage and so the name becomes also the title of the opera and the explanation of it as well.

The five singers have only the front of the stage to work in, but they make use of it effectively, aided by stage manager Rachel Tobias. Racette’s 1950s dresses were spot on, and the trio prances the stage with brio, charm, and big smiles.

Marin Alsop conducted the Chicago Philharmonic in a reduced orchestration for chamber orchestra created by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Alsop drew out idiomatic playing from her musicians and they offered good support for the singers. Only during the scene centering on the movie did the orchestra and Racette diverge, with the tempo set by Alsop not being completely met by Racette. Like the other small flaws in the performance, this seems likely due to insufficient rehearsal time.

Bernstein wrote his own libretto, which is the weakest part of the piece. Lines like “why can’t we find the way to life again?” and “floating among the floating flowers” or “face your face again” being awkward enough to take the listener out of the story.

Moreover, Bernstein is widely credited with creating an opera about the commercialization of American life, yet that overlay seems less relevant today and indeed rather quaint. The sexual politics of the opera are more compelling and universal, and the principals did a fine job of bringing them to the fore.

Ravinia’s celebration of Leonard Bernstein continues, with a performance of “Candide” featuring the Knights and conducted by Eric Jacobsen tonight in the Ravinia Pavilion. Curtain time is 8 p.m. Visit Ravinia.org for more information.