Opera UCSB unfolded a rare and interesting look at early-1950s Americana this past week with Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti.
The mostly student production managed very well with two stars — student Amanda Morando and wonderful California opera singer Nik Schiffman, often seen hereabouts in various musical endeavors. The student chorus and minimal sets filled out the productions. Costumes were street clothes, circa early ‘50s, a blue dress, black high heels and a rather dowdy brown coat for her and a period business suit and topcoat for him.
This was the young Bernstein’s look at marriage, in the same time period as when he wed Felicia Moneaegre. Bernstein himself soon admitted, however, that the characters were based on his parents, Sam and Jenni, called in the opera Sam and Dinah. Even here, Bernstein brought the family in close. His grandmother’s name was Dinah.
As Dinah, Morando was very appealing, and her sweet aria was touching. As her husband, Schiffman was outstanding. He has a flexible voice and good acting chops, plus a pretty commanding stage presence for such a young man.
The chorus consisted of Allison Bernal, Curtis Day, Brendan Geck, Gabrielle Goozee-Nichols, Savannah Greene, Nick Hengl, Andrew McIntyre, Blythe Tai and Ashley Willits.
“Orchestral” accompaniment was provided ably by pianist Chiacheng Naomi Sen. Steven Kronauer served as conductor and also did the stage direction.
“Tahiti” — Dinah’s dream island to which she longs to escape — was represented rather charmingly by a couple of large dancing tikis and a neon palm tree. It was interesting to hear in this very early Bernstein the quirky rhythms, dissonances and jazz influences with which the world grew familiar when West Side Story hit Broadway a mere five years later.
Bernstein was always a showman, and his flair for the dramatic was ably conveyed even in this bare-bones production. The two principals were unhappy, unable to connect, yet still loved one another. By the end, Dinah the housewife and Sam the head of the family did finally make their peace with marriage and everyday life.
If there is one really somber lesson from Trouble in Tahiti, it’s this: that anyone at all survived the 1950s was a kind of miracle.