The "trouble" with Tahiti
As all-around brilliant as Leonard Bernstein was, the libretto he wrote for his one-act domestic tragicomedy Trouble in Tahiti is… let’s say unpolished. The colloquial American English back-and-forth of the main characters is authentic, and wonderfully set – there’s a reason the mezzo aria “Island Magic” is the most famous excerpt from the show. (No links to YouTube here – you should come see our live version instead on Sunday!) Some of the satire is ham-fisted and some of it is too clever by half, but there’s still plenty of bite to it. Where the libretto really falls down is when Bernstein tries to get lyrical – when the unhappy suburban husband and wife break off from squabbling with each other to reveal the tender, confused, and for once potentially likable people they are inside. These little monologues are serious wincers on paper. If you watch the show, though, you’ll notice that Bernstein saved his most beautiful music for just these scenes.
For me, a lot of the beauty of opera as it’s actually performed is in this sweet mismatch of imperfect elements. A kind of marriage.