Opera Review Print



Telephone Success and Tahitian Trouble

May 1, 2009 - Greensboro, NC:


Two one-act operas written in the middle of the 20th century were winningly presented Friday night by the Greensboro Opera in Linda Sloan Theatre at Greensboro Day School, giving two different looks into the soul of American life during that period. Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone (1947) and Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (1952) provided wonderful foils about couples trying to communicate. Interestingly, each libretto was written by the composer.

The plot of The Telephone or L’amour À Trois (Love with Three) revolves around Ben (Scott MacLeod), a gentleman suitor, and his girlfriend, Lucy (Elizabeth Williams Grayson).  Ben is trying to propose to Lucy, but is continually cut off by the ringing of the telephone. The short opera is primarily humorous with an underlying message that a “modern appliance” should bring people closer together. However, in this case it does quite the opposite, a message that rings true in this e-mail driven day.

One can hear influences from several opera composers in Menotti’s score, especially Mozart.  This was nowhere more apparent than in Lucy’s arias, where Grayson’s coloratura passages were delivered with clarity and brilliance. Her repeated “Hello, hello” answer to the ringing machine became more and more humorous in inverse proportion to Ben’s frustration at not being able to get his proposal out. Her acting was first rate. Her chatting about trivialities over the phone, mixed with her interaction with Ben, was a delight to watch.

MacLeod’s singing was solid and powerful, and was especially notable in the final duet in which the two lovers finally get to talk to each other via — you guessed it — telephone. His acting too was good. The scene in which he approaches the telephone in Lucy’s absence with the intent to destroy it, calling it a “wicked monster, mother of umbilical cords,” is one of the funniest in the 25-minute piece.

The interaction between Grayson and MacLeod was believably sincere and their diction was quite good; the words were easily understood by the good-sized audience.

Bernstein’s tale is darker, depicting a day in the life of a “successful” suburban couple, Dinah and Sam, who are no longer able to communicate with each other. Dinah is more interested in escape (taking in the movie “Trouble In Tahiti” during the afternoon) than dealing with her marital problems, and Sam is more interested in work and his handball than his home life.

The role of Dinah was sung by Clara O’Brien who was armed with a beautiful vocal timbre and good acting skills. Her singing of, “I Was Standing In a Garden” was gorgeous and a high point of the 50-minute work.

Brian Carter, as Sam provided a rich and robust sound. One of the more darkly humorous moments is his aria, “There’s a Law About Men,” which paints a Darwinesque picture of how some men are born to succeed.

The interaction between Dinah and Sam was dicey, with a palpable tension, but also with a hint of the possibility of reconciliation. In the end, however, the next day of their life is doomed to proceed exactly as the previous one.

The opera opens with a vocal trio facetiously singing about the glories of suburbia in a jazzy, upbeat fashion. These three, Dora Hastings (soprano), Lindell Carter (tenor), and Ted Federle (baritone) served as a “Greek Chorus born of the radio commercial” (according to Bernstein) and provide both background commentaries to the proceedings as well as serving as silent actors in the Seven Scenes that comprise the opera.

It would have been nice to have had super titles in this opera as many of the pithy and witty lines were lost because of balance between the “orchestra” (piano and percussion) and the singers.

In the pit was GO Artistic Director/Conductor Valéry Ryvkin, who led the singers and accompanying musicians in great style — musical and ever-present to the needs of the singers. Michael Kamtman provided stage direction, and the simple sets were functional and used the large stage to good effect.

Carmine Mann and Christy Wisuthseriwong were the able and sensitive accompanists in “The Telephone” and Mann was joined by percussionist Phillip Long (also President of the GO), who added a lot of color to the score.

The operas are performed again on Sunday, May 3 at 2:00 PM. See our Triad calendar for details.