Trouble? Yes, plenty, but there’s no actual Tahiti in Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, which Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) presents at the Lobero this weekend, along with another one-act opera, La serva padrona (The Maid Turned Mistress) by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The Bernstein work, which predates his magnum opus West Side Story by five years, tells the story of an unhappy couple, Sam (bass-baritone Ryan Kuster) and Dinah (mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani), struggling to understand the lack of connection in their marriage. Set in affluent 1950s suburban America, the show takes its title from a movie that Dinah goes to see in the afternoon as a last-ditch effort to salvage what is left of her peace of mind. The film within the show irritates her and gives rise to a terrific aria called “What a Movie,” which describes her frustration but ends on a happier, more hopeful note. Trouble in Tahiti may not be as familiar as West Side Story, but it is packed with the same thrilling blends of popular and classical idioms that Bernstein is known for. Alongside Pergolesi’s 18th-century opera buffa, La serva padrona, the mixed-genre Trouble in Tahiti may seem an odd choice, but hearing the two together presents an opportunity that should appeal to opera novices and aficionados alike.
La serva padrona pits the wily maidservant Serpina against her aging master Uberto in a battle of wits that ends in marriage. Beneath the trappings of a frankly improbable plot beats the heart of a classic love story in the vein of Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer. Soprano Susannah Biller will sing Serpina, and young baritone Ao Li will take the part of Uberto. Bridging the stylistic gap between the baroque and classical periods, La serva padrona is considered to be among the most influential intermezzos of its time.
New Yorker Lawrence Edelson is the director of both productions. I spoke with him about the program at the offices of Opera Santa Barbara last week.
Did you put these two works together on the same bill? No, and I will admit that my first reaction when [OSB artistic director] José Maria Condemi contacted me about doing it was “huh?” I love Trouble in Tahiti and think it is a great achievement, an amazing work, but on the surface it is deceptive. There are numbers in it that are very Broadway-like, but at its heart it’s really a deeply moving opera that’s also remarkably relevant. To put it with La serva padrona, which is a lot of fun as fluff but is from a totally different era, well, that required some thought because we didn’t want it to look like the only reason for the pairing was the limited number of singers required. I felt we had to find a reason these two operas belonged together from inside the works, and we did, by going through Trouble in Tahiti to reach La serva padrona.
And what is that connection? Trouble in Tahiti is about the American dream as a suburban marriage—having the little white house and the nine-to-five job and all the rest of it, and the discontent that can bring. With La serva padrona, the work is totally unrealistic. The closest thing we have in our popular culture to opera buffa is slapstick. So I said “no powdered wigs,” because I don’t work with powdered wigs—it’s not my thing. I thought, “Who is the 20th-century equivalent of Uberto, the miserly master with the young maidservant?” and I came up with Hugh Hefner. And that’s what we’ve done with it to bring it into line with Trouble in Tahiti—we’ve reset the action in an elderly bachelor’s mansion. It’s a way to get the audience to laugh with the show and to deliver the characters to them in a way that they can understand.
Trouble in Tahiti and La serva padrona will be performed on Friday, April 8, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 10, at 2:30 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information call 963-0761 or visit operasb.com.