Midcentury, modern

In recent years, Opera Paralléle has established a reputation for creative programming of contemporary opera in San Francisco. Persuaded both by the promise of an unusual Bernstein-Heggie double bill, and the unusual venue of SF Jazz’s Miner Auditorium, I had the pleasure of attending an excellent production this past week. 

On its face, the decision to combine Jake Heggie’s and Terrence McNally’s At the Statue of Venus with Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti seemed unlikely. The atmosphere of the former, a nervous soliloquy by a young lady awaiting the arrival of a blind date in an art museum is, by turns, humorous, charming, and optimistic.

By contrast, Bernstein’s portrait of a disintegrating marriage set in the Marcusian dystopia of a suburban wasteland (a caricature to which Bernstein’s political prejudices made him especially susceptible), takes a darker, sardonic tone. I doubted that the two would fit well together. But this prejudgment on my part was incorrect. Opera Paralléle’s decision not only to present Venus and Tahiti as a double bill, but to combine them into a single narrative turned out to be highly successful.

In making this choice, the company relied on a few links inherent in the works themselves. For one, there is the insatiable longing that unites Rose, Heggie’s optimistic blind dater, with Dinah, Bernstein’s disaffected but never despairing housewife. The latter character can serve as a jaded shadow of the former, as Rose’s boundless feminine energy is trapped in a cul-de-sac of suburban banality.

Unfulfillable expectation becomes – predictably – unfulfilled; but Rose’s longing for something greater is never completely lost in the character of Dinah – it merely lies dormant. Conveniently, Venus leaves the character of Rose’s blind date an unknown. The only thing we learn about him is that he shows up at the statue of Venus an ungentlemanly thirty minutes late – a fact certainly not inconsistent with Dinah’s self-seeking boor of a husband in Tahiti.

The other natural connection between the two works comes through the anxiety of influence Bernstein exercised over Heggie in the writing of Venus. In its melodic and motivic material, West Side Story rears its head in Venus early and often.

Slightly (but only slightly) deformed quotations of “Something’s Coming” provide much of the material for Rose’s more distressed moments (particularly as she whips herself into a frenzy over a series of men she misidentifies as her date.) And in Rose’s tender moment of reflection on her childhood, which Heggie masterfully casts as a curtain falling on a simpler past, one can’t help but hear snatches of “Maria.”

There is also the matter of orchestration. In a large-scale sense, Venus and Tahiti are natural partners in their handling of the singer-orchestra relationship: both subscribe to the “Britten chamber opera” approach of alternating discreet orchestral accompaniment with Greek chorus-style commentaries.

Opera Paralléle’s production made several intelligent choices that served to accentuate the two operas’ underlying affinity. This shrewd approach began with the overture, in which a crowd of museum-goers milled around projected artwork, accompanied by a conservatively-orchestrated medley of tunes from West Side Story, including both of the aforementioned numbers.

While this opening of Bernstein’s greatest hits may have seemed pedestrian – even kitsch – in the moment, its usefulness as musical connective tissue became apparent almost as soon as Venus began. Another inspired move that served the same unifying purpose was the choice to cast an actual human being (dancer Steffi Cheong) as the Statue of Venus.

Streaked with purple body paint, the omniscient statue became not only a physical avatar of Rose’s thoughts, but later made a poignant return to the stage during Tahiti. As the couple were each rationalizing to themselves their decision to lie about prior plans to avoid lunch with the other, Venus returned, reoutfitted in a pink coat and galoshes. She crept quietly to the middle of the stage to look balefully upon the ill-fated, fragmented couple that had once met in her shadow. We are left to decide what larger message to draw from seeing the goddess of love surveying the wreckage of this relationship.

Manipulating dramatic works in an attempt to send a deeper message, though, can be a dangerous game if taken too far. And it was exactly that impulse which led to the production’s one major misstep: the strange choice to program Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question as an intermezzo between the Bernstein medley overture and the Heggie.

As Ives’ famous dialogue between offstage trumpet and chattering chorus of woodwinds unfolded, Statue of Venus Cheong was called upon for an interpretive routine. While the dance, set beside the statue pedestal, did a brilliant job of dramatizing Ives’ increasingly frustrated woodwind interjections, how any of this helped to frame the narrative of Venus and Tahiti was unclear.

And that is not to mention the lack of a substantive musical link between Ives, Bernstein, and Heggie. While Opera Paralléle clearly wanted to put Cheong’s talents to good use, they should have found a more productive way to do it. That, for this reviewer, was the one major bump in an otherwise lovely evening.

On the whole, personnel for this double bill were superbly selected. At the center of it all was mezzo soprano Abigail Levis, who brought an effortless, transparent sound to both operas. Perfectly good all around, she was at her most poignant in the operas’ tender emotional climaxes – the longing lyricism of Dinah’s “There is a Garden” and the simplicity of Rose’s childhood reflections in Venus.

At these moments, Levis sang with an “on the breath” sort of effortlessness that imbued the music with both lightness and an inner glow. Though occasionally overpowered in moments of orchestral intensity or passages that required more percussive singing, Levis proved musically adaptable overall, and capable of embodying both the optimism of Rose and the emotional fatigue of Dinah.

Her counterpart in the Bernstein, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, proved well-matched to his rather more emotionally limiting part as husband, Sam. He perfectly embodied the social Darwinist antihero of Bernstein’s imagined suburbia, extolling his own virtues with unapologetic bravado. Brancoveanu also deserves extra commendation for singing with excellent breath support while pedaling about 15 miles-per-hour on a stationary bike!

No review of Tahiti can be complete without mention of Bernstein’s excitable chorus trio, here capably performed by Krista Wigle, Andres Ramirez, and Bradley Kynard. Responsible for providing indefatigably optimistic (and occasionally nonsensical) backup vocals, Bernstein’s trio highlights the contrast between suburbia of the American imagination and the reality of the two lives we see before us (a technique Bernstein no doubt was honing for the later composition of Candide).

Well-supported by a kaleidoscope of projected magazine advertisements that changed with each scene, the trio did an excellent job of maintaining the untenable – at times uncomfortable – enthusiasm underpinning Bernstein’s ironic statement.

Considering the fact that I saw the first performance of this double bill, the excellent quality of the orchestral performance and coordination with the stage was a pleasant surprise. In the deft (and extremely demonstrative) hands of music director Nicole Paiement, Opera Parallele’s orchestra of contracted local freelancers reacted with a clear and intuitive sense of the singers’ phrasing and pacing.

The orchestra even managed to achieve an effective rubato in irregular and shifting meter, particularly towards the end of the Bernstein. Two excellent performances in the wind section deserve special mention: the beautiful white tone of clarinetist Peter Josheff during the dream sequence at the end of Venus, and the vocal blending of flutist Stacey Pelinka – her low-register accompaniment of Dinah in the Bernstein was expertly done.

The production, though relatively low-budget, successfully used the small thrust stage at the SF Jazz Miner Auditorium for dramatic effect. In Venus, a balcony behind the stage was used to situate the action: perambulating art viewers reminded us that we were in a museum without disturbing the interaction of woman and statue.

In Tahiti, the stage was reset as a rotating platform divided into sections, each depicting a different suburban scene – a kitchen with television, a work desk, an exercise bike – which allowed us to see both Sam and Dinah going about their lives in close proximity to one another but starkly divided. Projection screens were used to great effect, particularly in the Bernstein, to create the atmosphere of invasive advertising and consumerism that he aimed to skewer.

All of these set decisions, masterminded by stage director Brian Staufenbiel and set designer Dave Dunning, came together beautifully to advance the dramatic and musical intent of this unusual double bill. For recognizing the links inherent in two disparate one-act operas, playing those links up into a unified whole, and turning in excellent performances of both shows, this production is highly recommended.

Photos: Steve DiBartolomeo