Two one-act mini-operas staged in April by Ensemble Parallele (Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti and Barber's Hand of Bridge) at Z Space showed couples wallowing in conjugal misery and midlife crisis. Yet, through witty staging and excellent musical execution, the final result is enticing and revelatory. Who knew looking so close at a relationship's warts could be so enjoyable?
Anyone afraid of Virginia Wolf knew. But here, the staging (by Brian Staufenbiel) places a layer of distance between us and the characters by playing up the 1950s time of the two works' creation. You won't recognize yourself in Sam and Dinah drifting apart from each other, as much as you'll safely appreciate the sweet period irony of cigarettes, lawn mowers and toasters ads projected on the back screen. Some of the pictures, while static images, shift uneasily on the screen, to underline the shaky grounds underneath the depicted domestic harmony. True, Bernstein did place some blame on the exodus to suburbia (cutely represented by a video animation of houses landing down in a field throughout the course of the performance, from farmland to housing subdivision). His Trio (Krista Wigle, Andres Ramirez and Randall Bunnell) sells you the white-fenced dream with an eager energy and upbeat rhythms. But Bernstein also understood that deeper rifts drew relationships apart (to wit: he left his wife because he was gay). Still, it would be silly to object to the levity of the staging, and the projection of the Trouble in Tahiti movie the opera takes its title from, is a wonder of knowing hilarity.