A Lot of Trouble for Trouble in Tahiti, and It Was Worth It: The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Works Wonders With Bernstein’s Opera

Bringing a little known work to a wider audience

She spoke of a recent production of Candide at the Staatsoper in Berlin, directed by Vincent Boussard, that she referred to as the “Sprockets Candide,” after the old Eurotrash parody skit on Saturday Night Live. It was hit with a change-or-desist order from Boosey & Hawkes, Bernstein’s publisher. And you might have trouble getting permission for a production of West Side Story set on the moon.

But Ms. Bernstein said her main consideration was getting her father’s music, especially the lesser-known works, as wide an audience as possible. That was what eventually led to the approval of the Trouble in Tahiti suite.

“If more people hear that music, great,” she said. “What’s the objection?”

Even if the opera’s critique of the suburban American dream can feel a little been-there-done-that after American Beauty, Mad Men and the rest, Trouble in Tahiti seethed with personal passion. The unhappily married central couple was originally Sam and Jennie, Bernstein’s parents’ names, though the wife’s was changed to the more singable Dinah (the name of a Bernstein grandmother). Like their namesakes, Bernstein’s parents fought bitterly, and their acrimony often resulted from the family’s frequent relocations; as Sam made more money, their houses grew larger.

Bernstein translated these frustrations and sour memories into music of bitterly winking good humor. At Orpheus’s rehearsal at Riverside Church, people kept mentioning the need to make the instrumental lines “sing.”

The opera and Mr. Chihara’s suite both begin with a bluesy, deceptively optimistic clarinet riff. Bernstein used, as a kind of Greek chorus, a trio of singers whose music has the smoothly peppy style of radio shows of the period. Mr. Chihara translated their opening number, “Mornin’ Sun,” into the brasses: muted trumpets and trombone.

The sunny opening quickly leads into a surging rendition of the aching melody of “There Is a Garden,” the account Dinah gives to her therapist of a dream she’s had, a vision of escape and a different life. As if to illustrate the life she’s desperate to leave, the orchestra moves into “There’s a Law,” the boisterously chauvinistic song that Sam sings in the locker room of his gym, before a calypso-tinged excerpt from “What a Movie,” in which Dinah describes a dance number in the cheesy film she’s just returned from (the movie is called Trouble in Tahiti). Finally, a solo cello—not in the original score—introduces the opera’s grim, brave ending, with nothing changed and little learned.

“If Lennie can do it,” Mr. Chihara said with a smile, speaking of the famous solo cello introduction to “Somewhere” in the West Side Story Symphonic Dances, “so can I.”

editorial@observer.com