Underworld Productions Opera presented a novel program at the Leonard
Nimoy Thalia Theatre, combining two mini-operas with Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble
in Tahiti, his melodic, if heavy handed one act dissection of the breakdown
of a middle class, suburban marriage. They called the program TROUBLEfuturesongs.
It proved to be a wonderful combination of tastes, textures and talent.
Brian Long (Tereus) and Michelle Seipel (Procne) in Justine F.
Chen's "Voice for a Future Nightingale." Photo by Jonathan
Each work had a singular feel, beginning with Voice for Future
Nightingale which condenses a story by Ovid into a concise tale of
poetic vengeance. Philomel (Stephanie McGuire) is raped and disfigured by her
brother-in-law Tereus (Brian Long) who abandons her. The ten minute work
contrasts Philomel’s lonely suffering, sung in harshly angular music with the
mundane relationship of Tereus and Procne (Michelle Seipel) who are seen
chatting over a dinner table and lying in bed. All the while Tereus is
assuring Procne that Philomel is well, Philomel, who is speechless because her
tongue was cut out by Tereus, is weaving a tapestry that tells what happened to
her. At the very last moment, the package containing the incriminating woven
cloth arrives at Procne’s door and we are left to suppose what happens next.
Composer Justine F. Chen and librettist Ken Gass’s work is all lean and
to the point, opposing Philomel’s poetic laments with the domestic boredom of
the married couple. Ms. McGuire’s big mezzo-soprano was piercingly moving
while Ms. Seipel and Mr. Long’s quieter music conveyed the tension in their
TROUBLEFUTURESONGS -- Gian-Carla Tisera in "Outerborough
Songs" by Thomas Deneuville. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Outerborough Songs is uniquely composed for electric
guitar (Marco Marino) and soprano (Gian-Carla Tisera), relating in
several short sections, the ups-and-downs of a relationship. First seen in a
hip leather coat, tight pants and dangling earrings, Ms. Tisera wanders about
in front of video projections of urban scenes, including an evocative view of
rooftops. As she goes from sad to elated, she literally lets her hair down and
dons a formal gown en route to a date. Composer Thomas Deneuville set the
poems by D. Nurkse to music that is contemporary with hints of pop (metal,
rock, etc.) which Ms. Tisera sang with a full-bodied expressiveness. Mr. Marino,
a mop-headed young man, sensitively tailored his playing to the singing.
Stephanie McGuire, Michelle
Seipel, Luis Gonzalez and Isaac Grier in "Trouble in Tahiti" by
Leonard Bernstein. Photo by Jonathan Slaff
Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s 1951
opera doesn’t hold up well dramatically. It’s full of clichés and Freudian
psychology, but, on the plus side, has some gloriously moving melodies. Although
the Underworld’s production is a precious opportunity to hear this work again,
some of stage director Gina Crusco’s auteurish intrusions were poorly thought
out and the conducting by Mark Shapiro, here handling a much larger ensemble
than the previous two mini-operas, failed to balance the singers with the
score, making much of the libretto unintelligible. True, the lines were
projected onto a screen, but it would have been good to hear the lines sung
clearly. One big mistake, in fact, was not miking the Trio (Michelle Seipel,
Miran Robarts and Luis González) who were Bernstein’s version of a combination
Greek Chorus and pop group. They were specifically written to be amplified to
emphasize the references to the then popular close harmony groups. Crusco,
the Underworld’s artistic director, who directed the entire program, decided to
update the opera with implications of drug use, adultery and a touch of
feminism. She used the Trio to portray the fighting couple’s son and other
characters who were only implied in the original.
Trouble in Tahiti movingly shows the breakdown of the marriage
of Dinah and Sam who cannot communicate, their every word a bullet aimed at
each other’s heart. Dinah finds solace in a silly musical film which provides
the title of the opera and Sam manages to relieve his tension at the gym. Ms.
Crusco turns Sam’s egocentrism into something darker and uglier, making it
quite unlikely that this couple’s union will survive despite Bernstein’s hopeful
However, the singing of the two leads, Stephanie McGuire and Isaac
Grier, was strong and expressive and easily heard over the 14-member orchestra,
making the inaudibility of the Trio even more perplexing.
The set designer, Michael Minahan, made the most of the tiny Thalia
stage with expressive hangings, videos and a wonderful backdrop in the shape of
a house used for the Bernstein work. A tiny model house was quite witty.
Edgar Cortes’ costumes in all three works were also witty evocations of the
characters. Kia Rogers’ lighting turned the performing platform into a complex
The Underworld Productions Opera Company produced a musically and
dramatically varied program with works that complemented each other beautifully
in their themes of love lost. The singing and acting were first rate and the staging
imaginative and clever.
TROUBLEfuturesongs – May 17-19, 2014
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre
Peter Norton Symphony Space
95th St. & Broadway
New York, NY
Tickets: 212-864-5400 or www.symphonyspace.org
More Information: www.underworldprod.com
Running time: 90 minutes.