In his music as in his life, Leonard Bernstein experienced the tension between the outward and inward-facing aspects of the self with a rare sharpness and acuity. Parts of his personality thrived on the glamor and frisson of international fame; other aspects craved a “quiet place” of reflection, intimacy, and creative inspiration.
In Bernstein’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti,” which opened on Friday night in a resonant new Boston Lyric Opera production, the composer transposes his intuitive grasp of this surface/interior duality into the key of American suburbia of the 1950s. From the outside we get the postwar consumerist fantasy of the little white house, ringed by a picket fence. But on the inside it’s all conflict, dysfunction, fumbled intimacies, and a profound longing for a life that’s anywhere but here.
The dissonance between the soap-bubble gleam of the ideal and the jagged loneliness that lies within is the animating force at the heart of this touchingly multivalent work. Its multivalence lies in its artful blending of the conventions of musical theater, opera, and jazz, yet also in its blending of sardonic social critique and autobiography. Bernstein’s portrait of Sam and Dinah, the embattled couple at the opera’s center, is clearly informed by the composer’s own childhood growing up as the son of two mismatched Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant parents strenuously building a new life in America. In the opera Sam and Dinah have a son named Junior about whom they argue. Junior himself does not appear in a single scene yet his presence hovers quietly over the entire affair. He is the one holding the camera.
BLO’s new production resourcefully transforms the DCR Steriti Memorial Ice Rink into a glamorous 1950s-style nightclub. Director David Schweitzer shows a deft touch and he has the wisdom to trust his material, placing the opera’s contrasting musical worlds in cheek-by-jowl proximity. Sam and Dinah melt down over breakfast as a jazz trio rhapsodizes jauntily about a little white house in Scarsdale. The disjunction opens up a vast and chilly space through which these characters wander as if lost in a dream.
The night’s sure-handed conducting came from David Angus. In the role of Dinah, Heather Johnson’s mezzo was a touch hard-edged but her portrayal was ultimately a sympathetic one, especially in the plaintive scene where she confesses to her therapist about an actual dream of escape into a shining garden. (“There, love will teach us harmony and grace . . . there, love will lead us to a quiet place.”) Bernstein sketches the character of Sam with less empathy, but Marcus DeLoach’s performance was vocally secure and nuanced, projecting midcentury alpha-male swagger but also glimpses of the void within. Mara Bonde, Neal Ferreira, and Vincent Turregano sang the closely harmonized trio parts with high-period style. It’s as if Bernstein were saying, as only he could, “let’s not let a little toxic domestic melodrama get in the way of a nice night out on the town!”
This production makes the intriguing choice of pairing “Trouble in Tahiti” with “Arias and Barcarolles,” Bernstein’s song cycle of 1988, and still more ambitiously, attempts to wrestle them into a single theatrical frame. You can see the appeal of this pairing, as both works reflect on the same subjects from different seasons of the composer’s life, and to smooth over the seams, Sam and Dinah are presented here as the protagonists of “Arias,” reliving scenes from their marriage. As a unified theatrical experience the pairing doesn’t really hold up; the song cycle is too disjointed to flow seamlessly from the tight narrative of “Tahiti.” But as individual songs, the selections in “Arias” take on new depths in this context, especially the heartfelt declaration that “every time a child is born, for the space of that brief instant, the world is pure.” Indeed, “Tahiti” shows us just how heartbreakingly brief that instant will be.
As it wraps up its itinerant 2017-18 season, BLO deserves credit for finding yet another new venue for its performances. But no amount of imagination can paper over the absurdity of the fact that New England’s largest opera company is still wandering the city’s neighborhoods in search of a permanent home.
“Trouble in Tahiti” and “Arias & Barcarolles”
Boston Lyric Opera
David Angus, conductor
At: DRC Steriti Memorial Ice Rink, May 11 (runs through May 20)Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.