What could be the link between Trouble in Tahiti (1952), Leonard Bernstein’s caustic portrayal of an affluent but thoroughly unhappy suburban couple and Clemency (2011), by Scottish composer James MacMillan, based on an episode from the Old Testament? For this production by the Dutch National Opera Talent program, young American director Ted Huffman was asked to direct Trouble in Tahiti as a celebration of Bernstein’s centennial, and pair it with a piece of his own choice. His decision to juxtapose these two works resulted in a rewarding double bill.

Sebastià Peris i Marco (Sam) and Turiya Haudenhuyse (Dinah) © Hans van den Bogaard
Sebastià Peris i Marco (Sam) and Turiya Haudenhuyse (Dinah)
© Hans van den Bogaard

Musically, the works are worlds apart. Bernstein’s writing is quintessentially American, rooted in jazz and Broadway musicals, while James MacMillan’s decidedly contemporary musical language recalls at times orthodox religious chanting and music from the Middle-East. Strictly from a formal point of view, however, both one-act operas require a similar line-up of singers: two soloists, a soprano and a baritone, with another three voices that always sing as a trio, in close harmonies.

In Trouble in Tahiti, this trio is what Bernstein described as a “Greek chorus born of the radio commercial” who boasts of the happy lives of American suburban families. Dinah and Sam’s certainly aren’t happy. From the first scene, we witness their incessant bickering. The marital discord between the frustrated housewife and her businessman husband hides a longing for a love that they no longer share. Symbolizing the futility of their lives, filled only with materialism, the set designed by Elena Zamparutti is a cross-section of an empty swimming pool, filled up with all the design furniture and gadgets one’s heart might desire.

<i>Trouble in Tahiti</i> © Hans van den Bogaard
Trouble in Tahiti
© Hans van den Bogaard

The smiling jazz trio (Kelly Poukens, Lucas van Nierop and Dominic Kraemer) does not only get to sing their catchy praises of consumerism. Inexplicably dressed as clowns, they act as puppeteers, trying in vain to force Dinah and Sam into the caring gestures of an idyllic middle-class family, or play all the silent characters of the action (Dinah’s psychoanalyst, Sam’s secretary etc). They also record Sam and Dinah whose videoed close-ups are projected onto the back of the stage, unfortunately out of sync. Boasting a handsome baritone, Sebastià Peris i Marco’s was a convincingly bullish Sam whether he dismissed a harassment incident with his secretary as something she should forget, or in his bragging ode to the Alpha male (“There is a law”). Turiya Haudenhuyse’s round, soft-grained soprano impressed in her rendition of “What a movie !…Island magic”, when Dinah reminisces he escapist movie she has just seen at the cinema (the Trouble in Tahiti of the title).

Although the libretto repeatedly mentions Sam and Dinah’s son, the character is usually invisible. Here, Mr Huffman chose to put him on the stage, as a teenager, now unwanted and left to himself, under whose gaze the couple’s marriage disintegrate.

Frederik Bergma (Abraham) and Jenny Stafford (Sarah) © Hans van den Bogaard
Frederik Bergma (Abraham) and Jenny Stafford (Sarah)
© Hans van den Bogaard

In James MacMillan’s Clemency, it is the long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah who is central to the story, although he is yet to be born. The swimming pool is now stripped of all the colourful props to become an eerie, barren interior, sparely lit and plunged into smoke. Michael Symmons Roberts’ libretto is based on an episode of Genesis in which the elderly Abraham and Sarah give shelter to three mysterious travellers who prophesize the imminent birth of their son, although Sarah is passed child-bearing age. As they depart, they reveal themselves as angels and disclose their mission to destroy the nearby “twin cities” (Sodom and Gomorrah). Abraham begs them for clemency: he asks them to spare the cities if they can find fifty acts of selflessness amongst the citizens, then bargains down to five. As the angels leave, Sarah is torn between the joy of bearing a child and the anguish of seeing him be born in a world of destruction.

In the pit, Duncan Ward conducted the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, reduced here to a strings ensemble, with vibrant urgency. Frederik Bergman’s dark baritone was superbly resonant in Abraham’s plea. Jenny Stafford’s soprano soared in Sarah’s ecstatic music with dramatic intensity. The three travellers changing into suicide bombers’ vests as they prepare to obliterate the “twin towns” may have been unsubtle, but it certainly had the provocative effect intended. Lucas van Nierop, Stefan Kennedy and Alexander de Jong as those three angels impressed in the most intriguing of music: the Triplets sing as one entity in tight harmonies that develop into intense chanting with a strong and dramatic otherworldly effect.

***11