Festival Recap: Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti in Munich

Classic Arts Features   Festival Recap: Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti in Munich
Composer and journalist Raphael Mostel looks back on the first-ever Bavarian State Opera staging of Leonard Bernstein's 1952 chamber opera Trouble in Tahiti. The expanded production, conducted by Kent Nagano, received three sold-out performances at the Cuvillis Theater.


Trouble in Tahiti, Leonard Bernstein's chamber work about a loveless American couple in suburbia, had its Bavarian State Opera Festival debut production in the Cuvillis Theater, the highly ornate rococco jewel-box theater where Mozart premiered his Idomeneo. The theater‹which is named after its original French architect who was also a dwarf and the official jester of the Bavarian royal court‹was recently reopened after extensive renovations. It is by far the smallest of the Bavarian State Opera's three opera houses in Munich, and is only used occasionally, for the most intimate productions.

Bernstein dedicated his seven-scene Trouble in Tahiti to his friend Marc Blitzstein, whose succs de scandale Cradle Will Rock, Bernstein had set out to "out-cradle" in his first attempt at composing "the great American opera." Emulating Blitzstein, Bernstein here deliberately wrote the music in vernacular popular musical styles of the day rather than more classical operatic style. The composer wrote the libretto himself.

In an interview in his office the morning of the second performance July 10th, Bavarian State Opera Music Director Kent Nagano joked the new Tahiti production, coming a mere two days after the new Wagner opera production he'd conducted at the National Theater, was actually Lohengrin, part 2.

Tahiti was performed in the original English. The three-voice chorus (Angela Brower, Jeffrey Behrens, Todd Boyce)‹which Bernstein's score describes as "a Greek chorus born of radio commercials"‹performed in clown make-up in this production, and occasionally helped to move items on the set. The action takes place on a single day, beginning in the morning, and ending in the evening in an unnamed "suburbia." The two main roles of the unhappy couple, Dinah and Sam, were sung by Beth Clayton and Rod Gilfry. This production included a non-singing, non-speaking actor, Moritz Becker, as the neglected son, Junior. Although usually seen clutching a stuffed bunny, the character also appears as a blow-up doll which is deflated in one scene. Junior is described in the opera as performing in a play in his school, which neither parent attends.

Trouble in Tahiti itself is the name of a fantasy South Seas Hollywood film romance described by the wife in her show-stopping solo. The opera ends with the family planning to go together to see this film, the wife for a second time. The opera may be more than a little autobiographical as originally Bernstein named the couple after his parents, Jennie and Sam, but later changed the wife's name. The composer himself had spoken of a scarring incident of his own youth, when neither of his parents attended his debut as soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto with the Boston Latin School Orchestra.

Tahiti was the eleventh new production to be conducted by Kent Nagano since his appointment as Music Director. Rather than the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, however, for this production the players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra were in the pit. These performances marked the world premiere of the new reduced-orchestration (for 14 musicians, instead of Bernstein's original 21) by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Mr. Nagano worked with composer himself when Bernstein was introducing the full opera A Quiet Place, which the composer developed and greatly expanded from this early work.

To lengthen the 45-minute Tahiti, director Schorsch Kamerun added a curtain-raiser called Bevor der êÊrger richtig losgeht... (Before the Trouble Gets Going...). This consisted of four German punk songs with music by David R. Coleman to texts by four different German punk bands: "Diese Menscehn sind ehrlich" (These people are honest) by Die Goldenen Zitronen (The Golden Lemons, the band Mr. Kamerun had sung with in the 1970's), F.S.K.'s "Das is der morderne Welt" (This is the modern world), as well as "Angst macht keinen L‹rm" (Fear makes no noise) by Angeschissen (Shit-upon), and "Es regnet Kaviar" (It's raining caviar) by Tolerantes Brandenburg (Tolerant Brandenburg).

These four punk songs were declaimed in front of the curtain accompanied by silent video by Jo Schramm of a clown opening a book which displayed a film of imagined disputes between the opera characters (as themselves or as blow-up dolls) in the 1960's style suburban living room set of the first scene. The set itself was only revealed after the curtain was raised. Over the fireplace was a big painting of a smiley face, and the first action of Dinah was to rotate its mouth from frown to smile. Other sets included Sam's office, an abandoned amusement park, a blinking light sign saying "Suburbia," and at one point, the small ceiling chandeliers over the audience's heads were made to flash on and off and raise and lower in coordinated time to the music. There were numerous walk-on parts added by the director to the original, spare scenario written by the composer himself.

The Munich Opera Festival continues through July 31. For information, visit Bavarian State Opera.

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York. He teaches "Architectonics of Music" at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in tandem with architect Steven Holl.

All photos by Wilfried H‹sl.

Rodney Gilfry, Beth Clayton, Moritz Becker, Jeffrey Behrens, Angela Brower and Todd Boyce

Rodney Gilfry, Beth Clayton, Moritz Becker and Schorsch Kamerun

Rodney Gilfry

Todd Boyce, Angela Brower and Jeffrey Behrens
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