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American Atom Power

10/16/1998 -  
Samuel Barber : A Hand of Bridge
George Gershwin : Blue Monday
Leonard Bernstein : Trouble in Tahiti

Giselle Allen (Geraldine/Vi/jazz soprano), Maria Soulis (Sally/Dinah), Darren Fox (Bill/Joe/jazz tenor), Richard Chew (David/Tom/Sam Tahiti), Terence Den Dulk (Mike/jazz baritone), Michael Smith-Stewart (Sam Blue Monday)
City of London Sinfonia, Marin Alsop (conductor)

This fine programme of American short operas, part of the Inventing America season at the Barbican, is linked by the theme of fantasy as escape from the misery of everyday life.

A Hand of Bridge, written in 1953, is nine minutes long. Four card players -- two couples -- sing their real thoughts as they play. The thoughts range from bubblehead Sally's wish for a hat with peacock feathers to bitter David's fantasy of "another version of every known perversion" every day.

Blue Monday, from 1922, is verismo along the lines of Cav and Pag, with a Harlem setting. It is rough and ready, the first pancake that doesn't come out right, but it foreshadows Guys and Dolls as well as Porgy and Bess and West Side Story. Joe the gambler dreams of returning south to see his mother, and restates his dream as he dies (shot by his jealous girlfriend) after learning that his mother is dead.

And Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti, from 1952, dreams of a quiet place away from the emotional blockage and squabbles of her marriage, again foreshadowing West Side Story.  But in a more cynical ending, she finally shares with her husband the schlock fantasy of the eponymous movie, itself a commercial product like their dream home in the suburbia and no balm to her soul. Trouble in Tahiti is a full-strength short opera, with dramatic characterizing arias for the two main characters, some acerbic dialogue and a jazzy commenting chorus.

The performances were semi-staged, and fully acted, on a platform in front of the orchestra. Marin Alsop is not the first conductor to have appeared frustrated by this arrangement -- she looked around rather often, even when there was no chance of eye-contact with the singers -- but she clearly had everything under control. Alsop is quite small, but does not look like a doll with whom it is prudent to fight. Her energy and commitment brought out a spirited, idiomatic performance from the City of London Sinfonia.

The singers also delivered some outstanding performances. Maria Soulis showed a fine comic gift in her Island Magic number in Trouble in Tahiti, and brought out the emotional force of Dinah's secret dream. Giselle Allen has a big, dramatic presence, carrying off the overblown melodramatic role of Vi in Blue Monday and camping it up as the jazz soprano in Trouble in Tahiti.

Richard Chew was highly effective as the mean and twisted baritone who recurs in all three works. Darren Fox has a fluid, lightish tenor and delivered both Bill's (comparatively) lyrical fantasy about his mistress and Joe's dream of seeing his mother eloquently. Although there were sniggers at the extremely corny denouément of Blue Monday, Joe and Vi's final duet had a real emotional sweep, and was cheered loudly. Terence Den Dulk was solid in a smaller role in Blue Monday and as the jazz baritone. Michael Smith-Stewart sang sweetly and moved expressively as Sam, the bar worker who sings the Blue Monday Blues.

The only fly in the ointment of this splendid performance was that the singers were obviously amplified. Not just because their microphones were visible, but also because at least some of the time, the sound did not come from where the singer was. Maria Soulis seemed to suffer from this particularly in Trouble in Tahiti, and also more generally from a homogenizing effect which was quite unpleasant, masking much of what was probably some very fine singing. Although the Barbican Hall is big, these singers are quite capable of singing there unaided.

H.E. Elsom



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