Thursday, April 08, 2010

Trouble and Tahiti and Zombies

Kyle and I went to a Portland Opera show last Saturday night; as we were waiting for the bus outside the creperie where we had dinner, a young woman asked us for directions. She was polite, earnest, probably in high school, holding a slightly battered tourist map of Portland. Did we know how to get to the Newmark Theatre from here? In fact, that's where we were going too; follow us. Oh, how lucky! On the bus the three of us chatted a bit. She had come down from Vancouver B.C.*, gone to the Saturday Market and a few museums, and was taking a recommendation from some ladies that she met to go see the opera. "They said it was something about zombies?", she said tentatively. Kyle immediately deferred to me with a you-know-about-opera kind of look. "Well... It really isn't about zombies at all." I mean, it was a triple-bill of two short Monteverdi operas from the early 17th century, followed by Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti". We walked into the Newmark with her and helpfully tried to figure out whether there was some other zombie-related performance that she was looking for. Kyle found something called "Dark Day" listed for the Keller Auditorium, which seemed hopeful, but then it turned out to be listed for two or three other cultural district venues, indicating no show that evening. We shrugged. The young out-of-towner headed off in the direction of the ticket windows and I didn't see her again that night.

Meanwhile, the production turned out to chain the three operas together, whereby the first ("The Dance of the Ungrateful Women") frees some dead, unlucky lovers from the underworld and the other two are the tales of romantic woe that they tell to the living. You can tell that the dead are dead because of their tattered clothes and George Romero makeup. Zombies! And now I fear I might have dissuaded a youthful opera-goer based on bad information. The first rule of Opera Club is, you don't talk about the on-stage content of Opera Club as though it necessarily has to do with the actual plot of Opera Club.

Anyway, "Trouble and Tahiti", even with supernumeraries in horrorshow garb hanging out on the margins of the stage, remains a catchy and sufficiently barbed send-up of the suburban experience. Bernstein's story (he wrote the words as well as the music) describes a day in the crumbling relationship of a married couple, Sam and Dinah, and although the most direct expressions of their unhappiness are too romantically -- well, operatically -- overwrought for my taste, elsewhere it's masterfully ironic, letting the characters sing from their points of view while the context provides the twist. The best case in point is two back-to-back arias late in the show, in which Sam sings a crowing alpha-male song after the pitifully small accomplishment of winning a handball tournament at his gym, and then Dinah (in "What a Movie", the show's highlight) derides a flimsy Pacific-themed movie musical until it becomes clear that she's caught up in its synthetic romance. Bernstein also gets a lot of mileage out of a "Fantasy Trio" who sing in close harmony about how the characters wish the world to be -- although their big numbers cataloging material comforts and consumer goods are pretty on-the-nose, they're redeemed by Bernstein's inimitably peppy music, here formed into the style of a commercial jingle with a slight rhythmic hitch. It's also instructive to be reminded that people have been calling bullshit on the suburbs since they first started to spring up.

In contrast, the Monteverdi works from some 350 years earlier aren't functional as drama by modern standards at all. "Ungrateful Women" was mostly remarkable to me in that its main theses were "beautiful and unjust women who reject their suitors are making a mockery of love, to the extent that Cupid and Venus have to go do something about it" and "do not turn away love in your youth, since you will not find any in your uglier later years", which either reflect an outdated set of cultural assumptions or suggest that Monteverdi's librettist was dumped the week before he wrote the thing. "The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda" relates the utterly implausible story of a Christian warrior and the Saracen enemy who is his (female) beloved in disguise. The text includes some timeless futility-of-war statements but in this performance it mostly served as the site of a bad chronological pile-up: The Roman classical gods hanging around from the first opera mingled with some bound and '50s-garbed zombies foreshadowing the third opera -- they, incidentally, suggested nothing so much as a mash-up of "Mad Men" and the dream sequences from "Brazil", which I would totally watch -- while a presumably medieval crusader and his lover-opponent fought it out on a stage overlaid with (wait for it) Ground Zero imagery from 9/11. Symbolism!

None of this should be taken to disparage Monteverdi's lucid and evocative music, which was finely rendered by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble (serving as the pit orchestra) in a spare arrangement of strings, harpsichord, and lute or guitar. The ensemble did a bang-up job in the Bernstein as well, as did Jose Rubio and Jennifer Forni in singing the principal roles in each of the segments. The sets and staging came off as a bit junior-varsity but they got the job done, and the folks in white pancake makeup clearly suggested the walking dead even from the uppermost reaches of the (admittedly intimate) Newmark. Overall, musically satisfying, kind of wonky production. Your basic night at the opera.

* Not to be confused with Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River. The distinction has to be made regionally, much as is the case with exurban Vienna, VA when you're in the D.C. area. There I found that saying "I spent a semester in college in Vienna" mostly got me some unimpressed looks, as though you'd told a Pittsburgher that you preferred to summer in Monroeville or something.


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