“Once and for all, let’s stop this brawling. Tonight, we’ll talk it over, relaxed and candid and free; as grown-up people should be.”
Trouble In Tahiti paints a witty, unashamedly honest picture of the everyday lives and troubles of an average American couple in the 1950s, living the so-called American Dream. This one-act opera depicts the ups and downs of a failing marriage, and the suffocating pressure of social conventions and expectations people faced, in seven expertly-crafted scenes. Leonard Bernstein – one of the greatest American composers, well-known for pieces such as West Side Story and the musical film On The Town – wrote both the music and libretto for this opera, in 1951; ironically, just shortly after his own honeymoon.
Opera North’s performance was directed by Matthew Eberhardt in 2017, starring Wallis Giunta (as Dinah) and Quirijn de Lang (as Sam.) A jazz trio of Fflur Wyn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield accompanied the duo, framed as session singers recording jingles – creating a fascinating contrast between the world of light-hearted advertisements and radio jingles, and the troublesome lives of the married couple. This performance also featured Sam and Dinah’s son, Junior, who is always mentioned, but usually absent from the stage physically. The appearance of Junior, played by Charlie Southby, brought a new level of tension to the scenes with the adults’ obvious need to pretend that everything is fine in front of their child.
The era of mass consumerism, as well as the importance of adverts and media, is heavily represented in the play, most notably on the stage design. Sam and Dinah’s apartment is created by walls of advertisements on all sides, illustrating how they live their lives surrounded by the expectations and false promises of the media.
The figure of the ‘ideal man’ in the 1950s is also a strong theme, visualised in the gym scene where Sam sits in front of a huge poster saying ‘Don’t Be Half A Man!’. Throughout the Trouble In Tahiti, Sam continuously ignores his family problems by reminding himself of the kind of man he is; athletic, ‘the winner’ type, generous and successful. Dinah, on the other hand, seeks to understand her mind. She is a responsible housewife, yet still a strong, independent modern woman. She sees a psychoanalyst about her dreams, which brings audiences one of the most melodic and colourful arias in the play, ‘There is a Garden’.
Berstein’s lyrics are easy flowing, and filled with plain, everyday language (and the occasional pun), successfully creating the effect of seeing a realistic snapshot of an ordinary family’s life. Dinah and Sam’s struggle with communication comes through the libretto, where they often repeat each other’s sentences, as if they didn’t hear the other one speaking. The jazz trio’s songs are bursts of colour, and although they keep to quite simple language, we get sections of beautiful imagery and nice rhythmic phrases scattered throughout.
Overall, Opera North’s production of Trouble In Tahiti is a wonderful piece of theatre, ending with an open door which promises the hope of a happy ending for the family sometime in the future. The 1950s era dominates the stage, and the costumes were both visually pleasing and intriguing to see. The actors provided an incredible performance, both vocally and in terms of their acting. Despite some audiences feeling as though the story itself is rather basic and almost cliché for audiences in 2020, I stand by that there is enough talent and intrigue in the performance to make for engaging escapism for the full forty-five minutes.
Words by Regina Toth.
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