March 30th, 2010 4:00 pm | by JOHN MINERVINI Arts & Books | Posted In: Classical

LIVE REVIEW: Portland Opera, Trouble in Tahiti


Yoking vastly different operas on a single playbill was a gamble, but it paid off.

For its annual studio production, Portland Opera has programmed a show in two halves. Before intermission: Monteverdi. After: Bernstein.

Wait. What? That's right. No typo. Monteverdi, get up, stretch your legs, Bernstein. Just to give you some idea how big a stretch that is: Monteverdi wrote Renaissance madrigals in the 1600's. Bernstein wrote anxious, jazz-influenced Broadway hits in the 1950's. That's about as incongruous as a concert where Chopin opens for Animal Collective. It's like building a glass pyramid on the Louvre.

But against all odds, Portland Opera has pulled it off. They pulled it off! By chasing down thematic links among the three stories and reinforcing them with visual cues, the company has crafted a pleasing and dynamic whole. Although it isn't a polished show—the singers are essentially students, and they sound that way—it was nonetheless engaging and innovatively staged. Coming off Cosi fan Tutte, a production characterized by a disappointing dearth of ideas, this is a welcome change.


Il Ballo delle Ingrate (Monteverdi) No one falls in love any more. Have you noticed? Cupid certainly has. No one is susceptible to his arrows; in fact modern folk scoff at love. But Cupid's got a plan. He reasons that humanity could learn a lot from the lovelorn dead—that is to say, those who have scorned love and suffered eternal agony as a result. So Cupid and his beautiful mother, Venus, travel to the underworld to visit Pluto, whom they ask to release a few haughty souls as an example to the living. Pluto agrees to the plan, but only on the condition that Cupid allow himself to be blinded and Venus give up her beauty.

Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (Monteverdi) Jerusalem is besieged by Christians: having been occupied for centuries by Saracen Muslims, the city is on the verge of being conquered in the name of Christ. The story begins as Clorinda, a Muslim warrior, infiltrates the Christian camp with the intention to sabotage it. But she is found out by Tancredi, a Christian knight. Wouldn't you know it? Tancredi and Clorinda are secretly lovers, but he doesn't recognize her in her heavy disguise. They fight strenuously until he delivers her a fatal wound. She's a goner, but before she dies she asks to be baptized.

Trouble in Tahiti (Bernstein) It's just another day in the toxic marriage of Sam and Dinah. The action begins with a fight over breakfast, after which Sam leaves home for his job as an office worker. During the day, he dallies with his secretary and skips off to the gym for a game of handball. Meanwhile, Dinah pays an unsatisfying visit to her analyst and a slightly less unsatisfying visit to the movies. This kitsch-heavy tale is filtered through the perspective of their neglected son Junior, who conjures up a picture-perfect family to sing us through the show in the style of a 1950's radio commercial. Suburbia!

If these operettas don't seem to have much in common, that's because they don't. Tying them together requires a genius stroke, and Portland Opera produces one in the form of a framing device. In the first piece, damned souls are released from hell to warn the living about ways in which love can go wrong. That basic story is used to frame the next two pieces. Through subtle cues, the audience is given to understand that both of the subsequent couples—Tancredi and Clorinda and Sam and Dinah—have been temporarily released from the underworld as a cautionary tale.

The point is driven home by shared visual elements among the three operettas. For instance, each features the same ghastly chorus of wandering souls, who shuffle ominously around the mise en scene. These supporting singers appear to be prosperous mid-century city folk, dressed for a party, but their faces are deformed with horrible masks and their bodies are bound with thick ropes. Cupid, Venus and Pluto are also recurring tropes; each has a cameo in Tahiti as, for example, a psychotherapist or a secretary. That's conceptually ambitious, and frankly it works.

That said, the show is not polished. Trouble in Tahiti is Portland Opera's annual studio production, which, although ostensibly an opportunity to show off a promising stable of studio artists, is usually more conspicuous for its low production value and local talent.

It's not worth dwelling on these less professional aspects. Overall, the singing is competent and the show worth seeing. But it must be said that the revolutionary final measures of Monteverdi's Tancredi require a soprano of exceptionally pure tone; and under the circumstances, Jennifer Forni's voice is wanting in freshness. Bass Jeffrey G. Beruan is frankly out of his depth in Il Ballo, and Jose Rubio—whom I have seen and enjoyed in other shows at PO—has trouble holding down the role of Sam. In this show, his tone is curiously closed-off, reminiscent of Kermit the Frog.

Instrumental music is provided by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble. They do an excellent job with broadway echoes (West Side Story and On the Town) in Tahiti, especially considering that Newmark Theater is such a sonically difficult space. Usually, sound vanishes upward, and musicians there tend to sound thin. Not so this time. The Monteverdi was less conspicuously good, although John Lenti's lute managed to evoke the churning passion under the staid, crystalline surface of Tancredi.

For another take on Trouble in Tahiti, see Brett Campbell's review.
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