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Trouble in Tahiti: Opera Review

Trouble in Tahiti: Opera Review

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Story: Sam and Dinah are a young married couple living the good life in suburbia. Sam is a businessman who commutes by day to his job in the city, while homemaker Dinah tends to chores around the house and caring for their son, Junior.

While they enjoy the creature comforts in their idyllic environment, their relationship has grown stale, resulting in pangs of loneliness and discontent in each of them. They bicker frequently, get defensive and moody, and yet they miss each other a bit when not together. It’s an unfulfilling situation not likely to improve, given their increasingly stubborn behavior.

Highlights: Written by Leonard Bernstein and first performed in 1952, Trouble in Tahiti is a brief, 40-minute excursion into light opera that carries the distinctive, jazzy touch of one of the master composers and conductors of the 20th century. There are earmarks to classic Bernstein works such as West Side Story and On the Town that mark the score with Bernstein’s signature style.

Union Avenue Opera recently opened its 2013 season with a weekend of sprightly performances of the brief work coupled with a cabaret performance of tunes taken from several of the composer’s creations. Five talented young singers collaborated with stage director Allyson Ditchey and music director Henry Palkes to offer a breezy and enchanting evening of entertainment.

Other Info: While the quintet of vocalists all possess splendid voices, often it was hard to discern lyrics, especially in the second-half cabaret, particularly with mezzo-soprano Kara Cornell. Perhaps microphones would have enhanced those efforts in the comfortable Union Avenue performance space, but that’s not something ordinarily considered by Union Avenue Opera, so it is what it is.

Cornell was effective, though, as the lonely, frustrated housewife Dinah, who more accurately embodies the Mad Men era of the ‘50s rather than the contemporary setting given in this rendition. References to “Technicolor” and other mid-century familiarities further anchor the story in its original setting.

Still, the performances were solid as enhanced by Ditchey’s careful guidance. In addition to Cornell, Ian Greenlaw applied his rich baritone to the role of Sam, a less sympathetic character in this presentation but one that Greenlaw manages to essay admirably. Both Cornell and Greenlaw handled Bernstein’s straightforward lyrics and syncopated music with aplomb.

A Greek chorus of sorts called the “Trio” served to offer musical commentary on the lives of Sam and Dinah and their contemporaries as a bit of a jazz group. Tenors Clark Sturdevant and Anthony Heineman and soprano Elise LaBarge capably demonstrated their own vocal talents, with LaBarge particularly animated and ingratiating.

Palkes smoothly handled music direction from his perch at the piano at center stage back, aided immeasurably by Eric Warren on bass and percussionist Henry Claude.

Their impressive work was equally evident in the cabaret that followed intermission, as they grandly tapped into Bernstein’s flavorful flair for the American musical vernacular so prevalent in West Side Story and On the Town, as well as selections from Candide, Wonderful Town, Songfest and Mass.

The five savvy singers took turns presenting various Bernstein tunes in the cabaret, highlighted by Sturdevant’s soaring rendition of Maria and LaBarge’s saucy take on I Feel Pretty, both from West Side Story. Cornell vamped it up humorously with I Can Cook, Too from On the Town, Greenlaw did an impressive take on Pennycandystore Beyond the El from Songfest and Heineman was in fine form grandly performing Nothing More Than This from Candide.

A snappy two acts that quickly consumed one hour and 45 minutes, Trouble in Tahiti and the companion Bernstein Cabaret put the audience in a happy frame of mind and made for an impressive start to Union Avenue Opera’s 19th season.

Opera: Trouble in Tahiti

Group: Union Avenue Opera

Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church

Dates: Run concluded

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.

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