Love and marriage, as one musical-theater composer noted, go together like a horse and carriage. While the idea of getting hitched can be exhilarating, the actual journey is often bumpy. Opera Santa Barbara presented both sides of this coin last weekend in the Lobero Theatre in a satisfying evening of one-acts. Giovanni Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, which dates from 1733, is a bubbly comedy about a maid who schemes to get her bachelor employer to propose to her. Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, which premiered in 1952, shows us a day in the life of an unhappy marriage.
While both scores are marvelously inventive (Bernstein’s is part opera, part jazz, and part Broadway), they make for an unlikely pairing. But this particular arranged marriage worked splendidly, thanks to the stylish and energetic conducting of Mark Morash, the enormous talent of six young professional singers (all resident artists at the San Francisco Opera’s renowned Adler Fellowship Program), and the cleverness of stage director Lawrence Edelson and set and costume designer Martin T. Lopez. Edelson moved the baroque opera ahead in time two-plus centuries, so that it, too, was set in the 1950s; the lord of the manor became a Hugh Hefner-like figure in blazing pink pajamas. This continuity gave the evening a genuine arc (manipulation to marriage to misery), culminating in a surprisingly powerful ending. It also allowed Lopez to create some wonderful, Technicolor-bright scenery, dominated by large silhouettes (of Playboy centerfolds in the Pergolesi, suburban homes in the Bernstein). Maya Lahyani, poignant as the lost, miserable wife in Tahiti, was the standout member of a strong cast.