Peabody Chamber Opera returns to the '50s via works by Bernstein, Hoiby
The focus of this production was on the '50s -- a work written during that era, Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti"; and a work evoking it, Lee Hoiby's "This is the Rill Speaking." (Talk of movies and movie-going pops up in both items, a little connective thread that adds to the aptness of pairing them.)
The Hoiby opera from 1992, inspired by a Lanford Wilson play, provides a slice of '50s Americana, with quick-moving vignettes introducing assorted rural characters. The piece sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be cool and contemporary (a four-letter word gets tossed around; there are references to masturbation), but stylistically it's firmly in conservative, mid-century idioms -- the shadows of Copland and Barber are in the air.
Hoiby is best known for his songs, which have been championed by some great American classical vocal artists. The opera reflects the composer's melodic gifts, especially in the wistful closing moments. It isn't quite a seamless package, the net effect is quite effective.
The Peabody staging, directed with a mostly light touch by Jennifer Blades, featured
Whether Hoiby's opera enters the mainstream remains to be seen. Bernstein's is a certified classic, a masterpiece of music theater, wonderfully concise and telling. This look at a suburban couple with issues and communication problems seems as fresh today as it must have been in 1952.
Jackman, as Dinah, and Peter Tomaszewski, as Sam, got firmly into their characters and sang with considerable nuance and communicative weight. Jackman's otherwise admirable diction slipped in Dinah's big aria, but she acted out this tale of a seeing "terrible movie" with elan.
Harrell, who got a chance to reveal his abdominal "Situation" as well as his smooth vocal styling, joined Diehl and Stephanie Miller to form the jazzy Trio that moves in Greek Chorus fashion though the opera with the kind of snap and wit that only Bernstein could have devised. Blair Skinner's conducting proved to be remarkably fluid and expressive; the orchestra responded in kind.
Blades kept things flowing with a subtle theatrical spark. Thom Bumblauskas designed the set that served both operas efficiently and evocatively.
PHOTO (by Edward S. Davis) OF 'TROUBLE IN TAHITI' COURTESY OF PEABODY INSTITUTE