Little Greats Part 2 – Osud and Trouble in Tahiti – A Review

I had hoped to cover all of the productions in Opera North’s Little Greats season but owing to various circumstances I only caught four out of the six on offer. My review of the first pairing was some weeks ago, so here is what I thought of the other two. Once again, the variety of the works chosen was impressive.

The first was Osud, written between 1903 and 1905 (with revisions in 1906 and 1907) by the Czech composer Leos Janacek with the libretto by the composer Fedora Bartosova. The work comprises a prologue ad three acts. Osud is Czech for Destiny and tells the story of the relationship between Zivny, a composer/tutor at a conservatory, and Mila, with whom he has had an affair, leaving her with a child. Mila’s mother was against the relationship and tried to marry her off to a rich suitor but whilst this plan did not work it succeeded in splitting the couple.

The prologue takes place in the present day (1907) in a classroom at the conservatory which is swiftly converted into a spa promenade to accommodate the action of Act One, set twenty years earlier. As is customary with many stage productions nowadays the scenery is representative rather than literal, so a stretching of the imagination on the audience’s part is required. The reason we are at the spa is because Zivny knows that Mila will be there and wants to meet with her again which he does, taking her by surprise. She asks if he has come for his son but before he can answer a schoolmistress arrives and begins rehearsing a group of choristers in a part-song. Don’t you just hate it when that happens! The singers go off on an excursion, leaving Zivny and Mila alone, so they discuss their past. When the singers return from their walk the two lovers escape together, just before Mila’s mother appears at the shindig looking for her daughter.

Act Two is set five years later in a set straight out of one of the more depressing episodes of Eastenders. Zivny and Mila are married and the mother-in-law, who has now gone completely bonkers, is living with them. Zivny is writing an opera which is almost finished with only the final act to complete. They proceed to have one of those domestics which comprise accusing each other of various misdemeanours and then begging forgiveness. Just as this seems to be reigniting their passion Mila’s mother enters the room, mockingly singing a love song from the unfinished opera. She then runs off with Mila in hot pursuit and after a struggle they both fall to their death from a balcony. Zivny, now left alone with his son, never finishes the opera.

Act Three is set fifteen years later which brings it back to the present day when we find ourselves in the conservatory classroom where the students are rehearsing the storm scene from Zivny’s opera which, although still without a final act, is being premiered that evening. The students become unruly and one of them, Verva, puts forward the suggestion that the opera is autobiographical and sings a duet between the mother and child in the piece to Zivny’s son who now attends the conservatory. The students ask Zivny to tell them about the background to the opera. The recollections become too much for him and he collapses after seeing an image of his late wife. In his final words of the work he says that the last act of the opera is still ‘in God’s hands’.

As is to be expected from Opera North, the singing was exemplary as was the orchestration. Some of the symbolism passed me by but this may have been because I had to keep referring to the titles screen to follow the libretto, the sound balance being less than perfect, especially during the quieter passages. I feel like one of those people who write to the ‘You Say’ section of the Sunday Times complaining that a television programme is marred by intrusive background music or the actors are mumbling. At first I thought that it was owing to my less than 20-20 hearing but I noticed that several others in the audience were moving their heads from stage to titles on a regular basis, making us look more like spectators at Wimbledon than opera goers at Leeds Grand. This was not a problem I had encountered with the first two productions I saw. I still had to look at the screen as one was in German and the other French, but the words were audible.

My other criticism is probably a matter of taste. Having read the synopsis above you wouldn’t think that this piece was a barrel of laughs and you would be correct, but the odd attempt at humour consisted of students throwing their papers in the air or cast members strutting around the stage like civil servants in the Ministry of Silly Walks. It was a bit too crude and childish for my liking but I suppose that is 110 year old Czech comedy for you.

The second offering was Trouble in Tahiti by Leonard Bernstein, a totally different kettle of fish. It was first performed in 1952 and has a distinct jazz element with American humour which put it a little more in my comfort zone. This is a tale of an unsteady relationship but it has undertones of misogyny and feminism, a word which had not yet been coined.

Sam and Dinah are a couple living the American Dream: they have a fine suburban home cleverly represented by posters for the latest labour saving gadgets on the two walls of the family kitchen. They also have a young son, Junior, whose birthday it is on the day that the action takes place. The only other cast members are a vocal trio who are in a radio studio singing songs extolling the virtues of living in suburbia, which punctuate the various scenes. Junior is in a school play that afternoon but Sam is in the final of a handball tournament at the gym and puts that before going to watch the play. Dinah accuses him of having an affair with his secretary, which he denies, but it doesn’t matter very much either way as the marriage is obviously on shaky ground.

We see Sam at the office making deals, and money, before asking his secretary if he has ever made a pass at her. She informs him that he has but he put it down to an ‘accident’. Meanwhile Dinah is at her analyst’s office – well it is the American Dream – where she describes her recurrent dream of being in an overgrown garden from which there is no escape, despite her being beckoned to another beautiful garden by a mysterious voice. By chance Sam and Dinah later run into one another and make excuses not to go to lunch together despite their having nothing else planned.

Sam wins the handball tournament and sings about how men are born unequa; there are winners like him and others who always lose no matter how hard they try. Meanwhile Dinah has been to the cinema to see a film ‘Trouble in Tahiti’, which she at first dismisses as technicolour drivel but then gets lost in the idea of a South Sea island way of life. She snaps out of the dream as she realises she needs to go home to make dinner. This means that she didn’t go to Junior’s play either.

When Sam gets home he reflects on another law of men, that even the winner has to pay for what he gets. Over dinner the couple try to talk about their relationship but it comes to naught and at Sam’s suggestion they go to the cinema to see the new film which he says has something to do with Tahiti. They have no spark in their marriage so they settle for ‘bought-and-paid-for magic’.

I must say that I enjoyed this much more than Osud. The story was well told and the music much more melodious. It seemed to be a bit of a dummy run for West Side Story as there were phrases and riffs used which would later reappear in the songs ‘Tonight’ and ‘There’s A Place For Us’. The humour was also a little more subtle. Dinah, when dismissing the film as being drivel, describes a love scene as being set on an island with ‘a man, a woman and a hundred piece symphony orchestra’ at which point she looked into the pit at the front of the stage. I found this doubly amusing as that could be the definition of opera. The final moment of the piece shows the couple on a platform which is heading for a cinema screen bearing the legend ‘The End’. Is it just the end of the opera or of the relationship?

Once more the singers were excellent and the orchestra superb.

I attended the Little Greats as they were meant not only for opera buffs but also as tasters for the uninitiated like myself, who would probably not risk losing three hours of their life gambling on enjoying a full length piece. Having seen four of them I must admit that I still don’t ‘get’ opera. The arias are easily accessible but the seemingly tuneless music employed to evoke mood and emphasis during conversations I found to be less effective than if they had been acted without the music, using the inflection of the spoken voice, although I suppose that that would make it a musical. This was best illustrated in Trouble in Tahiti when Sam was singing down the telephone! In the same piece they did in fact abandon the singing for a few moments during a soul searching scene at the dinner table.

I am hoping to go for lunch later in the week with a couple I met at one of the first productions, who write reviews for a specialist opera website, so I am looking forward to learning what I missed and how I can better enjoy any similar events in the future.

  • Written by

    Stan Graham