Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Shaw Festival—Opera Interlude

On our third day in Niagara-On-The-Lake, we caught a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s one-act chamber opera, “Trouble In Tahiti”.

Each year, The Shaw Festival offers a short theater piece as a “lunchtime” presentation. The Bernstein chamber opera was this year’s lunchtime presentation. “Trouble In Tahiti” was the first opera presented in the history of The Shaw Festival.

The staging and music presentation of “Trouble In Tahiti” were more musical comedy than opera.

The Shaw Festival had dispensed with Bernstein’s orchestra—even the publisher-sanctioned reduced orchestration was not in use—and instead had utilized an onstage four-man jazz combo for orchestral support. This, alone, rendered the musical presentation of the score nonsense.

The two singers portraying the only characters in the opera had music-theater voices, not opera voices—and such is perfectly acceptable if not ideal.

However, the composer’s three-voice Greek chorus had been expanded into nine singers and dancers—a Broadway chorus in all but name—and this expanded ensemble virtually took over the stage, turning every number into a song-and-dance routine.

The elimination of the orchestra and the use of a Broadway chorus amounted to a rewriting of the show—and not to the show’s benefit.

There is not much to “Trouble In Tahiti” to begin with—but what little appeal the work possesses is its portrayal of isolation and loneliness on the part of the young married couple unsuited as lifetime mates. If the young couple’s travails become lost amid a sequence of pizzazz- and charm-free Broadway routines, the essence of the opera disappears. What remains is a jumbled sequence of unimaginative excerpts from an old television variety show.

And that is precisely what The Shaw Festival presentation of “Trouble In Tahiti” resembled: an old-fashioned—and unwatchable—television variety show.

If the work itself were any good, we might have been able to summon a modicum of outrage over the mistreatment of Bernstein’s score. However, “Trouble In Tahiti” is so fundamentally weak that we endured the presentation with indifference—while marveling over the fact that The Shaw Festival had proven itself able to peddle such a gruesome show at $40.00 per seat.

The score of “Trouble In Tahiti” is not good, even by Bernstein standards. The melodic material is feeble, and Bernstein showed himself unable to fashion the material into anything approaching genuine operatic development. Written in the composer’s thirty-third year, the score is that of a talented college sophomore with much yet to learn.

“Trouble In Tahiti” lives on, to the extent it lives on at all, in stagings by music conservatories. It is an ideal student vehicle, what with its minimal stage requirements, unchallenging diatonic score and vocal parts demanding no virtuosity.

For audiences, however, “Trouble In Tahiti” does not provide much satisfaction, musical or theatrical. Outside conservatory walls, “Trouble In Tahiti” has—quite rightly—been largely ignored. A major conductor has never touched the opera; a major stage director has never gone anywhere near the piece.

Even the composer was unable to do anything with “Trouble In Tahiti” in the studio recording he made in the 1970s. In Bernstein’s own hands, the score resolutely fails to come to life; it is limp, dishrag music.

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