Pacific Opera Project made a triumphant return to Los Angeles last weekend with four performances of Leonard Bernstein’s one act opera Trouble in Tahiti. While the company kept busy during the pandemic, staging a handful of drive-in productions in Ventura, you could feel the shared sense of both excitement and relief between the company and the socially distanced crowd. We attended the penultimate performance, staged Sunday, April 25th on the beautiful grounds of the Heritage Square Museum in Montecito Heights. Though the wind huffed and puffed that day, occasionally imperiling the scenery, it did not bring the show down.
Trouble in Tahiti tells the story of Dinah and Sam (Megan and Andrew Potter), a couple whose marriage and suburban lifestyle have become stale and unsatisfying. While the conflict plays as a drama, Bernstein’s libretto is filled with moments of sardonic humor and satirical elements. Mezzo soprano Megan Potter portrayed Dinah sympathetically both vocally and as an actor. Her actual and stage husband Andrew, playing Sam, displayed the kind of physical presence and strong bass voice that makes you want to hear him take on the repertoire’s great villains.
Bernstein wrote both operas and musicals during his long career; but with Bernstein it is not uncommon for elements of both to be present in the same work. Trouble in Tahiti is the former, wall to wall singing with just a brief spoken exchange for dramatic effect at the very end. The opening theme (later reprised), though, is a conscious parody of the opening of his earlier success, On the Town. Where the sailors of that Broadway (and subsequent Hollywood) musical extolled the thrills of “New York, New York,” here a trio of singers–Bernstein termed them “A Greek chorus born of the radio commercial”–earnestly deadpan the virtues of suburbia, namechecking burbs from Scarsdale to Shaker Heights to Beverly Hills. Featuring Robert Norman, Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt and Ryan Reithmeier, this group did an excellent job both vocally and as the show’s factotums, keeping the action rolling and on point and extending the theatrical range of the program beyond the marital drama at its center.
Bernstein’s other nod to the musical comes in the opera’s penultimate scene, the sequence from which the work takes its title. Dinah, having spent an afternoon on her own attending the matinee showing of a movie musical called “Trouble in Tahiti,” reenacts the absurd plot with the chorus, replete in appropriate tiki costume by Maggie Green. Frenetically paced by director Josh Shaw, this was the show’s comedic highpoint.
Trouble in Tahiti was warmly received by POP’s loyal audience, and the weekend was successful enough for both the company and Heritage Square Museum that Shaw told the crowd that POP would be back at the venue with a different opera June 4-6th. Details have yet to be announced on their website, but in any case we’ll let you know when we find out.