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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Trouble in Tahiti – an opera in seven scenes (1951-2)
Libretto by the composer
Sam – Karl Daymond (baritone)
Dinah – Stephanie Novacek (soprano)
Gardener – Tom Randle (tenor)
Milkman – Toby Stafford-Allen (baritone)
Female – Mary Hegarty (mezzo)
City of London Sinfonia/Paul Daniel
Directed by Tom Cairns
Filmed specially for television during 2001
BBC OPUS ART OA 0838 D [75’00]


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I suspect Bernstein would have approved of this excellent TV realisation of his troubled early chamber opera, Trouble in Tahiti. It was broadcast by the BBC in 2001 (during Christmas, if memory serves) and its appearance on DVD is most welcome, particularly given the useful extras.

For such a short work (40 minutes) it packs an awful lot in, though I suspect its brevity has led to programming problems in the opera house. Quite simply, what do you put with it? It was, according to Bernstein authority Humphrey Burton, originally mounted in a double bill with Weill’s Threepenny Opera, a capitalist satire to which that Bernstein acknowledged a debt. That production, for various reasons, was not a success, and the opera faded into obscurity. The composer had always intended to add two more short operas, making a triple bill in the manner of Puccini’s Il Trittico, but only managed A Quiet Place in 1983, though this suffered a similar fate to Tahiti.

In an ironic way, the work has found its true home on television. Though at its dark heart lies a troubled marriage and neglect of a child’s emotional needs (reflecting Bernstein’s own childhood), the broader themes are of consumerism, materialism and the great ‘must have’ post-war American dream. This is summed up in the world of TV (escapism, advertising etc) and director Tom Cairns has brilliantly exploited the parallels. He beautifully recreates ’50s American suburbia, and in the opening number Breakfast in the Little White Dream House, he pans his camera round the neighbourhood, cuts cinematically in and out of the dwellings and generally encapsulates the whole suburban ethos probably more effectively than could be done on stage. The whole production moves along in this way, with sharp editing and clever synchronisation of the score with the visual images.

Cast wise, this is basically a two-hander, with an ingenious contribution from The Trio, a sort of Greek chorus of three, who keep cropping up throughout the action in various guises (gardener, secretary, milkman, ‘shrink’) to comment on the action. It is a Brechtian stage device superbly exploited on the screen. In the lead roles of Sam and Dinah (named after Bernstein’s father and an aunt), Stephanie Novacek and Karl Daymond are excellent. He is the burly, unfeeling head of the house, who cares more about working out than whether his marriage is on the rocks. She pours out her soul to the psychiatrist, then escapes into the celluloid world of the latest romantic movie hit, Trouble in Tahiti. Her ‘shrink’ couch aria I was standing in a garden, is very moving, with a gorgeous central theme that sounds like Somewhere in embryo. I cannot imagine either part done better.

As for the music, this is as infectious a score as Bernstein penned. From the pizzazz of the jazzy opening Prelude, through Stravinskian spikiness to Coplandesque lyricism, it has all the inventiveness you would expect from the young American firebrand. It is superbly brought to life by Paul Daniel, an ideal conductor for this job, and his orchestra clearly enjoy every minute, as well they might.

The disc is made up to 75 minutes by some useful extras. There is an introduction to the opera, with cast interviews and backstage glimpses. There is more substantial interview with Daniel (entitled A very testing piece) and, best of all, a 20 minute talk by Humphrey Burton entitled Not particularly romantic, where he takes us through all the main aspects and themes of the piece. Though recording quality and diction are excellent, the BBC has still included a full libretto in the well-produced booklet.

It may be a short work, bur this piece packs more in than many a tedious three-hour haul. The BBC’s handsome release may hopefully get the opera to the wide public it deserves, as there is no doubting its importance in the Bernstein canon. Highly recommended.

Tony Haywood

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