At moments silly, at other times poignant, Arias and Barcarolles (1988) offers an intimate and engaging meditation on human love and familial ties. The last work that Bernstein wrote, the song cycle was composed not long after 1983’s A Quiet Place, which explores the relationships between the characters of Bernstein’s 1951 opera, Trouble in Tahiti. Yet Arias and Barcarolles deals with the theme of family in a lighthearted manner that is quite different from the somber weight of A Quiet Place. The complete set will be performed by Glimmerglass Young Artists Tesia Kwarteng and Charles Eaton with pianists Allen Perriello and Christopher Devlin at the August 4 ShowTalk with the composer’s eldest daughter, Jamie Bernstein.
With Arias and Barcarolles, Bernstein, who wrote both lyrics and music, playfully brings out the comedy inherent in family life while maintaining an unmistakably tender touch. The earnestness is palpable in some songs. For instance, No. 5, “Greeting,” declares that “every time a child is born, for the space of that brief instant, / The world is pure.” Before the songs become too sweet, however, Bernstein quickly balances this sincerity with dry humor such as No. 2, “Love Duet,” when the soloists’ repartee resembles a tennis match made up of inside jokes.
Arias and Barcarolles is frequently compared to A Quiet Place because the two works were composed in close proximity to each other and both mediate upon American family life, but the cycle also has resonances with Bernstein’s 1956 operetta, Candide. Candide, with its searing satire and larger-than-life characters, superficially seems quite different from the unvarnished, fragmented snapshots of lovers, parents and children that are presented in Arias and Barcarolles. Despite these differences, Bernstein’s diverse compositional techniques in Candide, a work where the lush lyricism of “Make Our Garden Grow” and the serialist tone rows of “Quiet” are employed with equal theatrical flourish, are also found supporting the narrative arc of Arias and Barcarolles. Though the song cycle lacks a number that is as flamboyant as “Glitter and Be Gay,” “No. 7, “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” displays the composer’s acerbic wit, sparkling text setting and flair for the dramatic.
President Eisenhower famously remarked to Bernstein after the composer’s performance at the White House in 1960, “You know, I liked that last piece you played: it’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” With characteristic tongue-in-cheek humor, the composer took inspiration from this line of Eisenhower’s for his final composition – an unconventional, yet cohesive portrait of the intricacies, inconsistencies and small joys of family life.