Operatic double bill becomes one

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Wednesday February 21, 2018
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Renee Rapier and Kyle Albertson in the Opera Parallele/SFJAZZ production of Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti." Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo
Renee Rapier and Kyle Albertson in the Opera Parallele/SFJAZZ production of Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti." Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo

The worldwide celebration of Leonard Bernstein's birth centennial continued last week as SFJAZZ and innovative Opera Parallele re-teamed to create a double bill that meshed two works into one. Contemporary composer Jake Heggie's "At the Statue of Venus," with a libretto by Terrence McNally, introduced a woman anxiously awaiting a blind date. The course of her resulting marriage cleverly incorporated Bernstein's (words and music) melancholy 1951 one-act opera to become Part Two. Rose, the sole character in Heggie's chamber work, becomes Dinah in "Trouble in Tahiti."

Director Brian Staufenbiel's imaginative combination started with a medley of tunes from "West Side Story," played as patrons of the arts strolled through a museum, taking special notice of a statue of Venus (well-portrayed by dancer Steffi Cheong). The single man who would meet Rose/Dinah and later become her husband sang "Something's Coming." The Overture used Charles Ives' beautiful "The Unanswered Question" as background for the goddess of love's dance of contemplation.

It took a while for the show to get up and running, but the vaguely mixtape feeling of the opening soon appeared seamless. Staufenbiel made sure we would enjoy the set-up, and two operas easily became one story. The talented performers brought convincing life and cohesion to his vision.

The orchestra was conducted by OP's Artistic Director Nicole Paiement, and despite some balance problems in the cramped seating arrangement, the lively sound was still better than many a touring Broadway pit-band. Paiement has a knowing grasp of contemporary idioms: modern opera, theatre music and jazz.

The central characters in both operas were double-cast. Mezzo-sopranos Renee Rapier and Abigail Levis (as Rose/Dinah) shared the bill with baritones Kyle Albertson and Eugene Brancoveanu (Single Man/Sam).

A jazz trio of energetic singers - soprano Krista Wigle, tenor Andres Ramirez, and baritone Bradley Kynard - personified the Greek chorus in all performances. Their brittle syncopated commentary added pep to the "Mad Men" atmosphere of Bernstein's jaded take on mid-century suburbia.

Scenic designer Dave Dunning's colorful sets, Matthew Antaky's bright lighting, and Christine Crook's evocative costumes were also spot-on. The era was full of roiling transition, but it looked like a lot of fun. David Murakami's projections and Sherry Parker's mixed-media collage art tied the visuals together with laugh-out-loud glee.

Eugene Brancoveanu was Sam on opening night, and proved again he is both an imposing singer and convincing actor. He was off to a slightly shaky start, singing a labored "Something's Coming." As confused and blustering macho Sam in Bernstein's opera, he later took control of the stage with a fully realized and powerfully moving performance. The sight of him smoking a cigarette while working out on an Exercycle, singing the virtues of testosterone, was alone worth the price of admission.

Abigail Levis' Rose/Dinah deserved the focused attention given her combined characters. Staufenbiel was really telling her story. She was both dignified and heartbreaking as a woman trying desperately to keep youthful optimism alive.

Heggie's score is in a musical world inspired by Bernstein. McNally's libretto is sympathetic but superficial. The soloist must add depth. Sort of like a much longer version of "Will He Like Me" from "She Loves Me," the work needs a strong personality. Levis was nuanced, witty and believable. In "Trouble in Tahiti" she went on to create an indelibly touching memory.

SFS keeps the party going

The San Francisco Symphony wraps up the season-long Bernstein Centennial celebration Feb. 22-24 with performances of his exuberant Divertimento and the moving and lyrical orchestral Serenade with violinist Vadim Gluzman, the perfect soloist with a deep feeling for the composer. Conductor Andrey Boreyko concludes the program with Shostakovich's mighty and perhaps most famous score: Symphony No. 5. Bernstein was an early champion of the thrilling work.

When you are in Davies Hall, don't miss the wonderful Bernstein Exhibit in the First Tier lobby. Video, photos and some marvelous memorabilia in cases (including a concert vest and cummerbund!) make intermission a special treat. The picture of Bernstein cradling a young MTT in his arms perfectly captures the great man's emotional warmth. His legacy endures.

sfsymphony.org.