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.
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.
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