Florida Grand Opera closes down-sized season with comic double-bill

By Lawrence Budmen

Stephanie Doche is Dinah in FGO’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. Photo: N. Svorinich

Florida Grand Opera’s reconfigured season of small-scale American operas has been artistically innovative and rewarding. The mini-series concluded Saturday night at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores with a winning double bill of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Thomas Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso. As in the previous productions, excellent singing, imaginative staging and vigorous musical direction allowed the scores to be heard in the best possible light.

Trouble in Tahiti, premiered in 1952, comes from the 13-year period (1944-1957) that found Bernstein at his creative zenith. During that era, the music seemed to effortlessly pour forth from him. His Symphony No. 2 (“Age of Anxiety”), Serenade for violin, the film score for On the Waterfront, the New York-centric musicals On the Town and Wonderful Town and his Broadway masterpieces Candide and West Side Story all date from that fertile time. (In later years, his works were more effortful and highly uneven.)  

Trouble in Tahiti does not find Bernstein at top form but it is a clever and engaging confection that blends operatic conventions with vernacular pop influences.

 A tale of the troubled couple Sam and Dinah, the opera is a satirical view of the suburban lifestyles that proliferated adjacent to major cities following World War II. A trio serves as a Greek chorus commenting on the seeming happiness of the protagonists’ “little white house.” At the conclusion, their manner changes as they acknowledge the deep strife beneath this idealized picture of life in suburbia. Amanda Sheriff, Michael Miller and Nicholas Ward wonderfully encapsulated the style and sound of big band vocal groups of the 1940’s and early 50’s as they danced and moved sets about the stage.

Andrew Simpson brought a deep, virile baritone and magnetic stage presence to the cold, unfeeling Sam. In a shower scene at the gym, he sang the macho anthem “There are men” with vociferous abandon. 

Stephanie Doche conveyed Dinah’s despair at the loving warmth she once felt slipping away. Her smoky mezzo and luxuriant lower register radiated the sadness and hope of Dinah’s soliloquy in her analyst’s office. Her rendition of “Island Magic,” the heroine’s description of the Tahitian action fantasy movie that she attends, was delivered with the vociferous panache of a belter on the Great White Way. Simpson and Doche’s voices blended in melting tones at the conclusion as Sam and Dinah searched for a way to connect again.

From the first bars, there is no doubt who the composer of this score is. The jazzy fizz of the trios and the dark undertones of the duo’s arguments and attempted reconciliation are pure Bernstein. Conductor Caren Levine drew crackling rhythms from the small ensemble (seated on a platform next to the stage) and drew out the dark musical subtext of the principals’ forced gaiety. The instrumental forces rendered the music’s diverse mood portraits with tight ensemble and high precision.

Jeffrey Buchman’s breezy, rapid-paced staging made the opera’s 45-minute span seem considerably shorter. He vividly captured the tragic pathos of Sam and Dinah’s broken marriage. Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s bright costumes and Stevie O’Brian Agnew’s atmospheric lighting created striking stage pictures.

Pasatieri was one of the most prominent opera composers of the 1970’s. His romantic and richly melodic setting of Henry James’ Washington Square is a major work that awaits revival and his monodrama Before Breakfast (based on a play by Eugene O”Neil) is a tour de force for dramatic soprano. Pasatieri’s later works lacked the distinctive gift he had initially displayed and he eventually headed for Hollywood where he became a much-in-demand arranger and orchestrator.

Nicholas Ward and Ashley Shalna in Thomas Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso. Photo: N. Svorinich

Signor Deluso, dating from 1974, is an authentic opera buffa based on Molière’s The Imaginary Cuckhold. Misassumptions, wrong identities and chaos abound in this sparkling 25-minute charmer. Pasatieri’s lyric instincts are matched by busily vivacious vocal and instrumental writing. The pompous Gorgibus demands his daughter Célie marry a wealthy suitor of his choosing while her true love Léon is away in Paris. When she faints in the town square and loses her locket with a picture of her lover, Signor Deluso revives her but thinks his wife Clara has betrayed him when he sees her with the picture and the locket, threatening revenge and imprisonment. The returning Léon also thinks Cèlie has betrayed him and taken up with the clumsy Deluso. All is set right with the news that Gorgibus’ chosen husband has, in fact, secretly married his maid. At the conclusion, Deluso propounds the moral to the audience, “Never believe everything you see.”

Buchman’s production was in the best spirit of French farce with characters running in and out and eavesdropping on meetings and conversations behind bushes. Kaplan’s elaborate period costumes captured the over-the-top comedic spirit.

Sheriff, one of the most impressive singers in this season’s FGO Artists’ Studio, was both wildly funny and elegantly lyrical in Cèlie’s send up of anguish and despair. Simpson was an imperious Gorgibus. As the all-knowing maid Rosine who sorts everything out, Doche mixed nimble vocalism with deft comic timing. Miller’s stalwart baritone conveyed Lèon’s ardor and befuddlement in passionate arioso. As Deluso, Ward was a born comedian, dreaming of victory in sword play while invoking his moral sanctity in baritonal proclamations. Ashley Shalna (whose opulent soprano recently graced the UM Frost Opera Theater’s production of Darius Milhaud’s version of the Orpheus legend) sang Clara’s aria about men’s faithlessness with appropriate verve. Thandolwethu Mamba was a Town Magistrate with silent movie antics to match his strong voice. Levine kept the instrumental lines high spirited and bubbly.

There is one remaining performance of this delightful coupling of contrasting mini-operas. The entire presentation is a worthy conclusion to an ambitious FGO season that  creatively overcame pandemic restrictions and offered stimulating fare that probably would not have been normally heard in South Florida.

Florida Grand Opera repeats Trouble in Tahiti and Signor Deluso 3 p.m. Sunday at the Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores. fgo.org

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Sun Mar 21, 2021
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