Following Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi‘s shared billing with Haitian choreographer Jeanguy Saintus’ take on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 2019, Opera North’s joint ventures with Phoenix Dance Theatre are now firmly-established red-letter days in the Leeds Cultural Calendar.
Here, Matthew Eberhardt’s production of Bernstein’s Trouble In Tahiti, a valuable and flexible asset to Opera North over recent years, meets Phoenix’s new Artistic Director Dane Hurst’s adaptation of the same composer’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. No-one emerged disappointed.
A dysfunctional married couple, Sam and Dinah, perhaps unknowingly closer than they imagine, their seen-but-not-heard little boy, Junior, and a Greek Chorus trio, providing narrative, are all the cast that Bernstein needs for Trouble In Tahiti, perhaps his darkest operatic venture. This Day-In-The-Life-Of sketch of love’s slow death is simple, yet recognisably 1950s American suburbia, something we have all seen portrayed since, many times through a Hollywood lens.
The tunes are engagingly neat and melodious, the lyrics – Bernstein’s own – witty and decidedly pointed when sung. The jazzy orchestration, captures conflict with wind and percussion – drums to the fore – and compassion with long-breathed strings. Maestro Antony Hermus conducts with refreshingly focussed directness. The orchestra’s work on the night rightly brought universal praise from performers and audience alike.
Dutch baritone Quirijn De Lang (Sam), reacquainted with the role he took in 2017, still has a little trouble finding prominent voice for some admittedly low writing, and there were issues with forgetting some of the words, but a burnished high register is just right for his solo set-pieces and the duets with his wife. His is a convincingly familiar portrayal of self-aggrandising get-up-and-go: ruthlessly pitiless in business, ungenerously competitive at sport, a chauvinist at home. He fails to attend Junior’s school play, in which his son has the starring part, because it clashes with a handball final he just has to win.
Sandra Piques Eddy (Dinah) finds glorious expression in her two showpieces: the piquant “What A Terrible, Awful Movie”, having just watched a cinematic South Sea escapist fantasy, Trouble In Tahiti, with its hip-swaying hit tune “Island Magic”, and the thought-provoking “A Quiet Place”, a serious, heartfelt outpouring, the magnitude of its tragedy presumably lost on her stony-faced, dispassionate therapist. Between these two engagements and a three-bag shopping spree, she too fails to make Junior’s play.
When husband and wife meet unexpectedly on the street, intent on avoiding the other’s company, each lies about things in the day still to do. Alone, each wonders where their relationship went wrong.
The Chorus trio – Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield – offers minor sympathy on the couple’s suffocating domestic relationship and adds enthusiastic commentary on their lifestyle aspirations, all with the requisite mile-wide smile of a TV advertisement jingle.
As the composer’s biographer, Humphrey Burton, has pointed out, with Trouble In Tahiti, Bernstein himself was pushing forward into emotional territory that no-one previously in American theatre had dared to explore. It is well worth your investigation.
The more I hear West Side Story, the more I become convinced that it is perhaps one of the most significant scores in the entire corpus of 20th-century American music. Bernstein left the reflective fireside homilies and vast expanses of the mid-West prairies for others to portray. As a native New Englander, and, most importantly, an adopted New Yorker, his musical canvas busied itself with the steely sound world of downtown rush-hour and the fiery, alloyed energy and latent danger within its suburban tenements. Four years after the musical, Bernstein fashioned a purely orchestral piece from it, re-ordering the sequence of numbers so as to satisfy musical needs, rather than follow the original storyline. I have always thought that, starting with original material so positively glorifying dance as an essential story-telling medium, he missed a trick or two by not including such obviously rhythmical items as “America” and making nothing more than a flightiest allusion to the grandly-melodic “Maria”.
None of this was problematical for Dane Hurst, recently-appointed South African-born Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. His Upper West Side are “District 6, Sophiatown and South End, which were decimated at the hands of the Apartheid authorities. The work looks at a community of people striving to live alongside each other in the spirit of Ubuntu, but which is faced with opposition and forces of division and separation from the outside.” The Group Areas Act segregated according to race and skin colour, the Sexual Immorality Act passed a putative Christian judgment on cohabitation and the Pass Laws forbade rightful freedoms on the non-white population. Protest, love and tragedy are here portrayed vividly with energy, tenderness and pathos. Blues and jazz were, perhaps, novel vehicles for Jerome Robbins’ 1950s dancers. Then it might have been seen as an American medium for American performers to convey an American story, but the Phoenix troupe shows us just how universal is the music of protest and oppression to portray such grotesquely unjust, government-inspired persecution. Robbins’ style of an overriding naturalness – busy, youthful and impassioned – is adopted to great effect. The ensemble narrative is compellingly rhythmically incisive and precise, the solo and duet work beautifully expressive. Like Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, tragedy strikes before the end …
As a brief prelude to the ballet, Leeds poet, Khadijah Ibrahiim, read her own poem Halfway And Beyond, a short, spoken word performance with restless percussion accompaniment, a recital of an individual’s fitting place within their accepted group and a universal yearning to belong.
Performance dates: Friday 22 October, Friday 29 October and Saturday 30 October at 7pm at Leeds Grand Theatre.
Photographs provided by Opera North. Feature photograph: Seirian Griffiths and Shawn Willis,