Trouble in Tahiti by Leonard Bernstein

Director: Matthew Eberhardt
Producer: Opera North
Cast: Quirijn de Lang, Wallis Giunta, Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton, Nicholas Butterfield, Charlie Southby
Set Designer – Charles Edwards
Film director: Ross MacGibbon
Available free online until June 1

 

Bernstein’s 45-minute, one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti is his only oeuvre for which he wrote both words and music and he made the language plain to ensure realism.

That he started work during his honeymoon on such a disillusioned tale of a marriage knocked off course by shallow materialism could not have reassured his bride.

But its simple directness and eschewing of the epic makes it perfect opera for small lockdown screens and our new-found, undistracted focus on what matters in relationships, which are claustrophobic or not depending on their intrinsic health, rather than on wider society.

Opera North’s expertly-judged 2017 production, made into a film under the direction of Ross MacGibbon, opts for a detailed recreation of the 1950s North American suburbia Bernstein satirises.

Charles Edwards’ set gives us a backdrop of advertisements to underscore the superficial aspirations of the American Dream and its well-appointed kitchens, athletic, successful men and decorative women.

At the centre of it all is Quirijn de Lang as Sam, the buttoned-up, self-loving star of the gym and the office, while his wife Dinah (Wallis Guinta) whiles away her days preparing dinner and visiting her analyst.

It is Dinah who commands our sympathy as she seeks to engage Sam in the life of their son.

Outwardly, the immaculately-presented wife, she erupts with longing in There is a Garden, exploring her real dreams, and with unleashed energy in Island Magic.  A shameless swipe at South Pacific, the song/aria follows a sneaky afternoon trip to see the terrible movie Trouble in Tahiti.

For a moment, Dinah is her natural self, with strong feelings and independent thoughts.

With Sam, language dries up, choked off by the artificial pressures to conform and all the other dishonesty the pair of them has created and cannot disperse.  Their duets serve only to confirm they are locked in their separate worlds, unable to break out and find their way back to the love they once shared.  It’s a tragic failure to communicate in stark contrast to the direct, emotional appeal of the opera.

They are witnessed silently and movingly by their son, played by Charlie Southby, and accompanied with gusto by a fabulously unfeeling chorus of Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield who sing and sway to the jazzy jingles that complete the advertising backdrop, promising happy, light-hearted lives.

Barbara Lewis © 2020.

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