Chances to hear Leonard Bernstein’s sublime short opera Trouble in Tahiti occupy a special place in the rich pageant of his centenary celebration. In an inspired match of program to venue, Opera Santa Barbara’s (OSB) Studio Artists performed Trouble in Tahiti at Center Stage Theater on April 20-21, pairing it with another gem of a short opera from the 1950s, Douglas Moore’s Gallantry.
In Tahiti, Chelsea Melamed and Byron Mayes played Dinah and Sam, the suburban couple who yearn for connection even as they grow further apart. Elle Valera, Jonathan Walker-VanKuren, and Vincent Grana played the work’s only other role, a chorus that the composer dubbed the “Jazz Trio.” In the blue coveralls of movers, the Jazz Trio performed a range of stage tasks, from packing brown boxes full of Sam and Dinah’s belongings to climbing on and dancing around the couple’s furniture — all while singing. This ambitious blocking was just one of many imaginative decisions by director Alison Moritz that made an asset out of the black-box theater venue. Pianist and music director Kyle Naig negotiated the tricky score while still staying in sync with the singers, and although the Gershwin-esque clarinets and brass of the full orchestration were missed, Naig’s sensitivity kept the focus where it belonged, on five glorious voices.
Gallantry, Moore’s manic satire of early soap operas, made a remarkably good fit as the other work on the bill. Both evoke the conventions of 1950s television, right down to the singing commercials. The backstage drama’s love triangle intersects in interesting ways with the one in the soap opera’s script, and Valera got a chance to shine as the common love interest, nurse Lola. The entire evening was a delight and represents an exciting new direction for the talented team at OSB.