Monday, August 2, 2010

Trouble in Tahiti may count as the most confessional thing Leonard Bernstein ever wrote. In 1951, the young genius - who was a happily promiscuous bisexual - had just married, in part to better his chances of winning the conductorship of the BSO (he'd been advised that marriage might quell the rumors about his sexuality). But the subterfuge didn't do him any good: Bernstein didn't get the job, and regrets over his wedding (below left) set in right on cue - he even began composing the one-act Tahiti, a poignant portrait of a frustrating marriage in which both husband and wife are deceiving each other, while still on his honeymoon.

The opera of course has interest despite its real-life subtext (and the fact that Bernstein's personal inspiration led him to write his own libretto); indeed, it's one of Bernstein's most successful blends of "high" and "low" musical modes, features one of his loveliest melodies ("There Is a Garden"), and is imbued with a delicate, Cheeveresque atmosphere (even though it was written before John Cheever, another closet case in the suburbs, had really hit his stride).

Recently Boston has had two chances to savor this intriguing musical mood piece - Opera Boston did it awhile back in a cabaret setting, and last weekend Boston Midsummer Opera offered a full production at the Tsai Performance Center, paired with Bon Appétit!, Lee Hoiby's charming tribute to Julia Child. The two pieces made a slightly odd couple, but both are meant to charm (if in very different keys), and both are short - the Hoiby is barely half an hour - and strong production values and voices put both productions over.

Bon Appétit!, however, clearly outshone Trouble in Tahiti - largely due to reasons of casting. The trouble with Tahiti was that its two stars, Sandra Piques Eddy and Stephen Salters, although both talented singers, weren't quite right either in timbre or presence for their respective roles. Tahiti is essentially a portrait of duplicity and fragility, but both Eddy and Salters are strong, almost sturdy presences, and neither seemed much prone to neurosis, even though the opera is largely concerned with their respective fantasy lives.

And Scott Edmiston's direction, as usual, displayed a light touch but not all that much insight; it felt cleverly shaped, but not deeply explored. He underlined the piece's satire rather than its conflicted emotional sympathies (he gave its strange "Greek chorus" trio all manner of amusing doo-wop routines), and politely deleted any sexual subtext from the proceedings. He also pulled the unhappy couple's (usually unseen) son onstage twice - which tended to twist the material into the standard form of boomer domestic drama (which it's not). Oh, well; if the production never quite hit the heights it might have, it still never dragged, and was fairly stylishly designed - and conductor Susan Davenny Wyner gave a good account of Bernstein's score in the pit. There was also some lovely singing (despite the Tsai Center's strangely muffled acoustic) not just from the leads but also from Megan Roth as the head of that chorus-trio (she was also most at home with her Andrews-Sisteresque routines). I hope to hear and see more of Ms. Roth soon.

And of course I'd like to see the wonderful Judy Kaye, the star of Bon Appétit!, again as soon as possible. Kaye, of course, makes the perfect musical Julia Child (ok, she doesn't have the height, but she's got everything else in spades), and she seemed to channel the chef's famous joie de vivre effortlessly as she whipped up a chocolate cake before our very eyes - on a facsimile of the set Julia used to cook on - all while singing her heart out. I suppose the piece is just a trifle, but to be honest, it gave me the happiest, most carefree time I've had in a theatre in months. (Maybe years.) The real surprise, actually, was the sweet sophistication of Hoiby's score, which seemed to perfectly nudge Child's already-nearly-musical musings into a soufflé of light melody and clever in-jokes (when Kaye intoned that "When making a chocolate cake, you need a battle plan!" the Marseillaise briefly cranked up). The crowd left the theatre in high spirits (we even got a free cupcake), convinced they'd seen something close to the ideal light-opera summer program.