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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


Trouble In Tahiti
Opera North At Home  Spring 2020

Leonard Bernstein wrote both the music and the libretto for this one-act opera in 1952, at a time when he had one foot in the classical music world and one on Broadway. It raised some eyebrows at the time, not just for being in English and on a contemporary subject, but for its less-than-rosy picture of American life and for a musical vocabulary that drew on both genres.

This 2017 production by Opera North captures all its power and charm. With a chorus of two men and a woman providing introduction and occasional commentary, the opera uncovers the hidden unhappiness of a typical suburban couple.

Following some weary bickering over breakfast – 'Pass me the toast' – 'You might have said please' – he goes off to exercise his power at work while she tells her therapist of a dream of happiness that taunts her. They meet accidentally at lunch but both invent excuses not to spend time together.

He plays a game of handball and exults in being one of the world's chosen winners, and she bunks off to a bad movie (the South Seas adventure of the title). Back together at night they join in a duet of yearning for something better – 'Is there a day?' – without really being willing to work toward it.

That summary implies a cynical tone that the opera does not avoid, but that is tempered by a sympathy for both characters and by music that draws us into the unhappiness that defines their lives.

'I was standing in a garden,' her aria about her dream, has a simple and haunting melody, while his later aria 'There is a law about men' subtly exposes the trying-to-convince-himself subtext of his celebration of being a winner. Their lunchtime duet is actually overlapping soliloquies, the shared music only underlining their lack of connection, while her account of the Tahiti movie is a full-scale Broadway comic romp.

Those who know Bernstein largely via the Broadway connection will hear occasional melodic hints of On The Town, Wonderful Town and West Side Story, most notably in the final duet, whose subject of yearning for something more inspired a melody not too far from 'There's A Place For Us.'

For the Opera North production director Matthew Eberhardt and designer Charles Edwards chose to not hide the theatrical artificiality of the work. The chorus are introduced in a radio studio, openly holding their sheet music and singing into microphones, and the plot scenes take place on obvious stage sets dominated by enlarged magazine advertisements of the consumer age.

It goes without saying that the singing is flawless. Wallis Giunta as the wife has the greatest opportunity to display the range and beauty of her voice, particularly in her dream aria, while Quirijn De Lang subtly captures the pain of a man whose singing is sometimes trying to hide his feelings.

The video recording is excellent, though you may wish your computer had a better speaker system.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of  Trouble In Tahiti - Opera North  2020