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In performance: Bernstein and Bolcom at the InSeries

by Cecelia Porter

The InSeries, under its founder Carla Huebner, is celebrating its 10th season as a Washington independent non-profit theater company, and will soon mark its 30th season overall. To celebrate, the company opened its season on Saturday with an imaginative double-bill of pocket-size operas: Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti” (1952) and William Bolcom’s “Casino Paradise” (1990).

In this zesty production, directed by Nick Olcott, the soloists and supporting cast were dramatically convincing and sang with lyrical finesse; while music director Frank Conlon made his piano sound like a full-blown orchestra.

Both operas ridicule 1950s suburban middle-class life, festering with domestic unease. Both works are about an illusory goal: longing for “a quiet place” (in Bernstein’s) and “the promised land” (in Bolcom’s). And both fuse classical musical features and Broadway tunefulness.

But there the resemblance ends. Bernstein’s opera was composed in the same era he spoofs (he also wrote the libretto), and it vibrates with jarring immediacy in its depiction of the fading American dream, a supposedly happy marriage gone sour with intimations of modern feminist issues. Bolcom’s work, mocking, though less sophisticated, depicts the epoch from four decades away.

“Trouble in Tahiti” facetiously peels back a façade of picket-fence Elysium to expose the harsh realities behind it. With onslaughts of savage harmonies, Bernstein switches violently between wry comic bravura, probing satire and penetrating grief. (In October, New York City Opera will present the full-length opera that grew out of, and includes, “Trouble in Tahiti,” called “A Quiet Place.”) Will Heim was a powerful Sam; Grace Gori exposed all Dinah’s misery. Both captured Bernstein’s lyrical magic.

“Casino Paradise,” a smoothly crafted parable of greed and family strife, anticipates the austere eclecticism of Bolcom’s opera “A View from the Bridge,” presented in 2007 by the Washington National Opera. As Bolcom’s music darts between caberet showbiz, Piazzola-brand tangos and doo-wop, Arnold Weinstein’s libretto presents outrageous characters. As Fergeson, Scott Sedar proved a truly shady real estate tycoon; Jase Parker vigorously portrayed his feisty counterculture son Stanley; Tara McCredie precisely pictured his sleazy daughter, Cis; Grace Gori was a sympathetic nurse; and the ensemble aptly conveyed the gullible townsfolk.

 The 1950s aura was heightened by a sly backdrop of poster ads (Pontiacs), period costumes (a crinoline skirt!) and props (a formica table top with chrome legs); and smoothly timed choreography and lighting.

The show continues through October 2.

 — Cecelia Porter

By Anne Midgette  | September 20, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Is there any reason why positive reviews such as this one are relegated to the blog only, whereas less than favorable reviews made the Monday print edition? It just seems odd that the Post would rather impact a more prominent presenter's ticket sales than elevate a smaller company's visibility and potentially help fill houses.

Posted by: vilheim | September 21, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

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