Trouble in Tahiti is an opera in seven scenes by Leonard Bernstein. It tells the story of one day in the lives of Sam and Dinah, a young couple who live with their son in an unnamed suburb in 1950’s America. Sam is an ambitious corporate executive preoccupied with his work, while Dinah is struggling to find purpose and fulfillment in her role as wife, mother, and homemaker. They are drifting apart, and their life together has become one of quiet desperation, as Thoreau so aptly put it.
Bernstein composed Trouble in Tahiti in 1951. It received its premiere at Brandeis University on June 12, 1952 with Nell Tangeman and David Atkinson in the roles of Dinah and Sam, and Bernstein himself conducting. I fell in love with it as a college freshman in 1967, through a recording with David Atkinson and Beverly Wolff.
Bernstein said of this work, “It’s a lightweight piece. The whole thing is popular-song inspired and the roots are in musical comedy or, even better, the American musical theater.” This modest disclaimer notwithstanding, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Trouble in Tahiti as trivial. Dinah’s aria in Scene III has always struck me as incredibly affecting, and one of the most beautiful songs Bernstein or anyone else ever wrote.
This film was produced by the BBC in 2001, and was directed by Tom Cairns. The role of Sam is played by baritone Karl Daymond, and Dinah is played by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek. The City of London Sinfonia is conducted by Paul Daniel.