Composer: Leonard Bernstein
Conductor: Antony Hermus
Opera North’s Bernstein double-bill pairs a guaranteed winner in Trouble in Tahiti, which delighted audiences in the 2017 Little Greats series, and a stunning new performance of the West Side Story Symphonic Dances, produced in association with Phoenix Dance Theatre. In between a 10-minute dance piece, Halfway and Beyond, spoken words by Khadijah Ibrahim accompanied by percussion, is supposedly a bridge between the main works – not in any way necessary, but stylish enough for its short span.
Trouble in Tahiti is a one-act opera with libretto by the composer. One discerning audience member remarked that he didn’t know whether it was satirical or sentimental. Exactly! If you’re sentimentally enamoured of the American Dream, what can you do but satirise the disappointments and phoniness it can lead to?
Sam and Dinah live an ideal life in a little white house in the suburbs, together with their son Junior. Sam has a good job, Dinah has an analyst. A vocal trio straight off the radio commercials sings of the delights of the suburbs while Sam and Dinah steadily put emotional distance between each other and, sadly, between them and Junior. Sam spends the day showing what a man he is, bullying at the office and glorying in his ability at handball at the gym; Dinah spends the day reliving lost dreams and watching a mindless film; they meet accidentally and both find excuses not to lunch together. The sort of reconciliation at the end is settling for second (or possibly fourth or fifth) best, the movie image of The End the final irony in Matthew Eberhardt’s splendidly aware production – no walking happily into the sunset for Sam and Dinah!
Eberhardt and designer Charles Edwards find the perfect style for this small masterpiece. We begin in a radio studio, with the relentlessly perky trio of Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield hymning the praises of suburbia, and Sam and Dinah’s life is lived out in front of a variety of flats emblematic of the consumer society. Direction is understated for the most part, bursting into glorious Technicolor life when required – notably on Island Magic, the story of the awful film Dinah saw – Trouble in Tahiti, wouldn’t you know?
Quirijn de Lang repeats his excellent 2017 performance, willing to be as unappealing as Bernstein intended. Sarah Piques Eddy, the suburban housewife to the life, lost in the pointlessness of her existence, makes the I was in a garden dream heartbreakingly beautiful, though her delicious Island Magic could do with a touch more vocal oomph. And Isaac Sarsfield, wandering lost through the action in his cowboy get-up as Junior, is an inspired addition.
The Symphonic Dances above all highlight the excitement that Antony Hermus, newly in place as Principal Guest Conductor, can generate from the orchestra – blazing brass, dynamic percussion, exquisite subtlety on Somewhere. Dane Hurst’s choreography and the thrilling sounds coming from the pit complement each other perfectly. Hurst’s interpretation via black/white relationships in South Africa is powerful and relevant and allows him to follow in the Jerome Robbins tradition, with athletic contrasted to natural movement, emotionally charged individual episodes followed by exuberant ensemble dances. The momentum is irresistible, the subdued ending beautifully judged, the whole thing proving what a genius of the theatre Bernstein was, even in a concert work first performed at Carnegie Hall.
Touring the North East of England