Photo by David Bazemore

CONCERT REVIEW: Operatic adventures in the chamber

Opera Santa Barbara’s double-header of Pergolesi’s ‘La serva padrona’ and Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ brought grand designs into a chamber setting

JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

April 12, 2011 7:22 AM

Taken on its own considerable merits, last weekend’ double-header chamber opera event at the Lobero Theatre, gamely mixing the 18th-century wiles of Pergolesi with the 20th-century fare of Leonard Bernstein, was a wowing triumph on an innately modest scale. On this occasion, Pergolesi’s musically lustrous, satirical farce about romantic power playing, “La serva padrona,” made for a surprisingly apt playmate for Bernstein’s 1952 parody-gone-dark “Trouble in Tahiti.”

Yet viewed in the larger context of Opera Santa Barbara’s continuing, evolving saga, the charming and sometimes disarmingly deep two-fer production made for the ideal capper in a small but mighty and well-balanced season for this determined, resourceful, artistically upwardly mobile company. What began last fall with a concert appearance of a genuine star of the opera stage, soprano Patricia Racette, went grand in scale with a truly impressive production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” earlier this year, scaling back in size but not artistry and ambition over the weekend.

Mixing and matching chamber operas can be tricky business, without hard and fast rules. Contrast helps, sometimes. A few years back, the LA Opera succeeded with its double-header of Bartok’s darkish “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Puccini’s light-headed comedy “Gianni Schicchi.” A similar harmonious accord across centuries and attitudes was at work in the OSB matchup, directed and choreographed by Lawrence Edelson. Fine young singers from the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Program asserted admirable vocal prowess, and conductor Mark Morash assuredly coaxed a clean, Baroque-cum-Bernstein-ian sound from the orchestra pit.

At the Lobero’s opening presentation of the Pergolesi opera, the curtain rose on an eyeful of a stage set, by Martin T. Lopez, a garish bedroom setting with a giant pink bed, cutouts of chandeliers and, more audaciously, several jumbo cutouts of the comely “mudflap girl” silhouettes popular on Mack trucks everywhere. Clearly, the production took the route of ushering a Baroque work into a post-pop-art modern milieu, respecting the inherent musical beauty of the score while sprinkling late American 20th- century kitsch — including handcuffs and French maid costumes with built-in wardrobe malfunctioning — around the giddy, gaudy edges.

This one-set wonder production, which worked beautifully, was the lair of the pampered, affluent playboy Uberto, who indulges his base instincts but secretly longs for his insolent maid, Serpina. Ultimately, the short comical opera is a matching and battle of wits between the parties, and a musical two-shot. This encounter was wonderfully sung by baritone Ao Li and soprano Susannah Biller, also blessed with an attention to acting interchange, even though the nature of Baroque opera relies on repetitive dialogue more suitable to musical than dramatic purposes.

A couple’s to-and-fro relationship is also at the troubled center of “Trouble in Tahiti,” albeit from a radically different turf, that of the early phase of post-WWII American suburbia. With this ripe, loaded chamber opera, written in 1952, before “West Side Story” made him an international sensation, Bernstein takes aim at the dangers and shallows of suburbia.

In this piece, the composer/librettist moves from the frothy, jazz-colored satirical opening with real estate agents promising the moon in assorted suburban outposts to the stuff of darker, existential and emotional clouds. Those gold-jacketed and manically grinning real estate agents — chirpily sung by Sara Gartland, Mr. Li and Daniel Montemegro — provided a goofy twist on the Greek Chorus, reappearing throughout the opera like nattering boosterist phonies.

But the real meat — and, we assume, the real target and point of Bernstein’s suburban cautionary tale — is the strained relations of a married couple, Dinah and Sam (the lucidly fine mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani and baritone Ryan Kuster, respectively). While he exudes macho manners in the office and gym, only occasionally examining his life, she explores her fuzzy psyche on the analyst’s couch and in a delectably crazed scene based around a B-movie called… “Trouble in Tahiti.” Meanwhile, Dinah and Sam’s own humble slice of paradise suffers from boll weevils on the manicured lawn, and they wonder, in song, “is there a day or a night waiting in time somewhere… a night without despair?”

Into this scenario, Bernstein applies his skilled hand in writing music both moving and urbane, tuneful and sophisticated, mixing up pop, jazz and post-grand-operatic manners. Fifty years later, its inquiries about sanity in the suburbs, and about American complacency in general, still ring and sing true.

With this generous and satisfying twin-engine production, the current OSB season — compact, but balanced and realistic — ends on a high note. The stage is set and the appetite is whetted for a new era in Santa Barbara’s musical landscape, operatically speaking.

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