Friday, January 29, 2010

UP IN SMOKE





Leonard Bernstein (libretto and music) Trouble in Tahiti, premiered at Brandeis University on June 12, 1952 / what I describe below was performed by the City of London Sinfonia conducted by Paul Daniel, a film version directed by Tom Cairns / 2001

I have always been a great admirer of Leonard Bernstein's short opera, Trouble in Tahiti, and, accordingly, I was delighted when my companion Howard recently brought home from the library the 2001 DVD cinematic recording, performed by the City of London Sinfonia and directed by Tom Cairns.

Using iconographical advertising images of the early 1950s, and moving the opera between each of its seven scenes into the city streets, Cairns presents a fantasy-like vision of suburbia in Bernstein's "pop"-artist like conception of the period.

But behind the post-war paean to the joys of life, sung mostly by the three-person chorus—

Mornin' sun kisses the windows,
Kisses the walls
Of the little white house;
Kisses the door-knob, kisses the roof,
Kisses the door-knob and pretty red roof
Of the little white house in Scarsdale.

—there is a crueler reality within that suburban household that shares much with the writings of period by J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Allen Ginsberg, and, later, Edward Albee. Dinah and Sam have seemingly everything they might want, he a good job, she a beautiful home with the latest appliances, and a child right out of a Norman Rockwell catalogue, shown in the first scene dressed in cowboy suit watching a cartoon that seems to be teaching the important lesson of American accumulation of goods. The couple begins their interchange with full hostility, Sam (Karl Daymond) singing "How could you say that thing that you did in front of the kid!," Dinah (Stephanie Novacek) reacting, "You were the first to go up in smoke." Both are "sick of this life," the humiliations, "the nagging," the impossibility of having a friendly conversation.

Together they seem oblivious of their son, who slips away at the first sign of the argument. Sam hasn't even time to attend an evening play in which Junior acts; a handball tournament at his gym is of greater importance; and despite her criticism of his values, Dinah too, we later discover, misses the event.

The couple are both trapped in their own worlds: Sam in a job that keeps money away from some while openly giving it to others through a value system where, he argues, some men "are flabby and some men are thin," Dinah torn between sentimental self-analysis (her beautiful aria "A Quiet Place" is little more than a dream of desire instead of a deep subconscious revelation) and total fantasy, wonderfully acted out in a drunken retelling of the plot of the movie "Trouble in Tahiti." Both are adult children who live in a world no more real than the Technicolor advertisements surrounding them. Even as they encounter one another on the street, they lie to escape each other's company. Their promised "talk" turns into a another trip to the "Super Silver Screen." Any possibility of real communication vanishes like smoke as they truly "Skid a lit day" (one of the scat phrases sung by the chorus).

In short, there is no real solution possible in this short satire, and we understand why Bernstein would want to revisit this material in his more substantial late opera, A Quiet Place, wherein Dinah has just died, and Sam's two children, Junior and Dede, return home, along with Dede's husband and Junior's former boyfriend, Francois. These figures are no freer from angst than Sam and Dinah had been, but they do find, by opera's end, at least a temporary release from their own histories, signified most clearly by Junior's tossing the pages of Dinah's diary (in which she has revealed both her hate of the marriage and her love for her family) into the air, after which a short-lived quietude descends upon "the little white house in Scarsdale....Highland Park, Shaker Heights, Michigan Falls, Beverly Hills, Suburbia."

It is interesting to note that Bernstein's own parents were named Sam and Dinah. And one wonders, despite Bernstein's more successful marriage, how much the tensions between man and wife are an expression of his own homosexual desires. He was himself a man torn between a need for a quiet life in which to compose and the reality, as an internationally renowned conductor, of a completely public one.

Los Angeles, December 20, 2009

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