Manchester Theatre Awards

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Trouble in Tahiti and Trial by Jury( Opera North Little Greats)

Leonard Bernstein and Gilbert and Sullivan
Opera North
The Lowry,Salford
17 November 2017 to 18 November 2017

 

Opera tends to enlarge subjects and so seems ill-suited for satire that often relies on subtlety and quick-fire dialogue rather than swirling arias. Director Matthew Eberhardt tackles this challenge in style – his staging of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in the setting of a radio station provides a dry satiric commentary that questions the values of suburbia.

 Alpha male Sam (Quirijn de Lang) is confident in his place as one of the ‘winners’ in society but he and his wife Dinah (Wallis Giunta) are struggling to make their marriage work. Dinah is having disturbing dreams and is suspicious of her husband’s secretary and both Sam and Dinah are making excuses to avoid each other and are only too aware of their poor parenting skills. Yet, as a literal chorus (Joseph Shovelton, Fflur Wyn and Nicholas Butterfield) keep reminding us, the couple are living what looks like the American dream in suburbia- so why aren’t they happy?

Director Matthew Eberhardt emphasises the hollowness within the relationship with a production that draws out the artificial situation. The opera is set in a radio station from which a jazz trio spill out to offer a commentary on Sam and Dinah’s relationship. Bernstein’s jazzy/swing score is light and lively but the too bright and over-cheerful performance by the jazz trio makes it sounds as if they are being sarcastic in idealising the joys of suburbia. The trivial nature of contemporary culture is reflected in Charles Edwards’s set in which the pressure to consume is so great advertising is perpetual  - even the rooms of the house are made up of billboards. 

Trouble in Tahiti is surprisingly bleak in tone and Quirijn de Lang and Wallis Giunta are merciless in drawing out the desperation that lies under the surface of the American dream.

Trial by Jury is an absolute joy. The Defendant (Nicholas Watts) is taken to court by The Plaintiff (Amy Freston) for breach of promise in that he reneged on his vow to marry her.  The Learned Judge (Jeremy Peaker) and the members of The Jury all admit that in the past they have committed similar offences but are swayed by their attraction to The Plaintiff.

Society is currently being scandalised by reports of influential people in the entertainment industry and Parliament exploiting their positions to make unwanted sexual advances. The contemporary tone taken by director John Savournin is, therefore, bang up to date. Although the cast are dressed in 1940’s period clothes their attitudes are distinctly present day.

The present day obsession with celebrities is reflected in The Plaintiff being followed by a gang of identically dressed wannabes referred to as ‘bridesmaids’ and members of the crowd are taking the 1940’s equivalent of ‘selfies’ outside the courtroom. Savournin takes a cheeky approach including an introduction spoken over the overture in the breathless style of a tabloid reporter updating the action of the story so that The Plaintiff becomes a movie star named ‘Angelina’. It is a wonderfully crowded production stuffed with visual gags including the judge arriving eating a bag of crisps and The Defendant flirting with a ‘bridesmaid’ during the trail.

The real star of Trouble in Tahiti is the mighty Opera North chorus whose members are allowed to really cut loose and show their abilities at full strength. The chorus populate the courtroom with characters that are eccentric and charming in the British tradition proving why the opera remains such a classic.

Reviewer: David Cunningham