Trouble in Tahiti – Opera North at Home

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Music/Libretto: Leonard Bernstein

Conductor: Tobias Ringborg

Director (stage): Matthew Eberhardt

Director (video): Ross MacGibbon

The latest addition to Opera North at Home neatly combines revisiting a past success with striking an optimistic note for the future. Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti made a huge impact in the company’s Little Greats series of one-act operas in 2017 and will be revived, coronavirus permitting, in October.

Bernstein, of course, was one of those composers who defy categories. A distinguished conductor and composer of classical music, he also composed such musicals as the ground-breaking West Side Story and his most successful opera, Candide, has periodically been re-configured as operetta and musical. Trouble in Tahiti, dating from 1951, is an opera that is open enough to other influences to include a close-harmony trio singing radio-style commercials and a delicious parody of all those songs of South Sea Island delights. It is also uncompromisingly contemporary, its picture of the angst of prosperity in the consumer society recognisably of a piece with the likes of Richard Yates.

Sam and Dinah are apparently the ideal suburban couple, living in comfort in their little white house and bringing up Junior. Sam prospers in business and enjoys the masculine society of the gym. Dinah escapes into her own dreams at the analyst and the cinema. With both of them, after ten years, boredom has become almost agonising and selfishness is all-engrossing. This particular day there is a focus for their failure to relate to others: Junior’s school play which neither succeeds in attending.

Bernstein limits his characters to the married couple, though Matthew Eberhardt’s production gives Junior an effective silent role. We have to imagine Sam’s secretary, his gym buddy and Dinah’s analyst in scenes where they are an invisible presence. There are, however, three singers, harmonising about the delights of suburbia, the irony increasing as they sing on while communication between Sam and Dinah breaks down to the extent that they lose the power of music, substituting fragmentary spoken dialogue.

Eberhardt sets the opera in a radio studio (designs by Charles Edwards), with the three singers (a delightfully cheesy trio of Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield) on air with their chirpy platitudes before Sam and Dinah’s living room is trucked in for a breakfast scene of subdued tension. In the final scene it’s time for dinner, the conflict more open, the candles and the wine of the perfect marriage another layer of irony as they find the only possible escape is into the fantasy world of film.

Ross MacGibbon’s film, commissioned by The Space for Sky Arts, inevitably loses some of the visual counterpoints of action in different parts of the stage, but compensates by its focus on the drama of the protagonists’ faces: together (if that’s the right word) Quirijn de Lang (Sam) and Wallis Giunta (Dinah) are blankly empty, revealingly expressionless.

Giunta has the opera’s two most striking numbers and makes the most of both of them. I Was Standing in a Garden recounts her dream of freedom with restrained beauty and Island Magic is an uninhibited romp. Recounting the story of Trouble in Tahiti, the film she has just seen, she begins by tartly rubbishing its absurdities, then becomes carried away by its Hollywood dream of the South Seas. In the Opera North production Sam and the trio join her in a parody Hollywood production number.

Dinah at least has dreams; Sam just has a dour desire for success, coupled with a little male bonding and the right to flirt with his secretary. In de Lang’s convincing reading of the character, Sam in the office is a smoothly unpleasant type, Sam in the gym explaining that not everyone is equal (“There’s a law” expresses his sense of superiority) takes it one stage further in its joyless self-glorification.

Bernstein’s world view is pretty bleak and Giunta and de Lang are equally unsparing in their performances, but Tobias Ringborg leads a musical performance that also seizes every opportunity for having fun, notably in the bright harmonies of the trio and the frenetic faux-exoticism of Island Magic.

Available on HERE until June 1st 2020

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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