Review: Trouble in Tahiti

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Trouble in Tahiti - CTO   –  Have dinner ready for your husband. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready on time for his return.

–  Prepare yourself. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking.

–  Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

–  Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice.

–  Don’t ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him.

                                  Extract from ‘The Good Wife’s Guide’ Housekeeping monthly, May 1955
It’s intriguing and appalling and hilarious that Leonard Bernstein should begin writing this day-in-the-life of a marriage-on-the-rocks on his own honeymoon.  Yet it is understandable in a glass-half-empty sort of way.  What if your wedding day is the happiest day of your life?  What if it is all downhill from there?

A one act opera in seven scenes, Trouble in Tahiti is about two perfectly affluent people, living the ideal surburban life of the 1950s.  He has a good job, she has nice hair, they live in a little white house with a picket fence and the latest Bakelite gadgets in the kitchen.  She does the cooking and keeps the house clean and tidy for her husband and their son, Junior.  A perfect 1950s shiny happy hula-hooping kind of life.  And yet, it’s just a Teflon-coated shell.

Clearly The Good Wife’s Guide is not all it’s cracked up to be. Inside, Sam and Dinah are churning, desperate for something elusive to them both, haunted by the memory of their former love, each yearning for a sign of genuine kindness from the other. Can they break through the rift in the communication barrier and rekindle their connection?

Whether or not Bernstein’s inspiration lay close to home is irrelevant.  Trouble in Tahiti is a warning – a simple example of what can happen to a couple should they cease to be tender to one another. Sam and Dinah’s marriage is becoming increasingly brittle due to a build up of simple petty grievances and we watch the two characters spin and churn as they go through a typical day.  All the while their emotions and thoughts are illuminated by a relentlessly chirpy, 1950s radio-jingle style commentary from a trio acting as a Greek chorus on the sidelines.

Trouble in Tahiti takes the audience, as director Matthew Wild explains, from something ‘entertaining and light’ through to ‘surprisingly heartfelt emotion’. ‘We’ve taken this production around the country already,’ he says, ‘and it’s been just brilliant to see how people connected so immediately with the subject matter and indeed, with the music.  Bernstein was one of the most influential figures in American music in 20th century as a composer, as a conductor and as a great populariser of music.’

Most people will know Bernstein’s name from the score he wrote for West Side Story.  Fewer will know that he was also awarded no less than nine Grammys for everything from Best Album for Children to Best Classical Album.  In addition, he received two Tonys as well as awards from the UK, Italy, Denmark and Japan. A highly influential American conductor, composer, pianist and educator, Bernstein built bridges between the worlds of classical, jazz and popular music.

Although performed under the auspices of Cape Town Opera, Trouble in Tahiti is far from being in the classic vein.  True to Bernstein’s genre-fusing style, it is closer to West Side Story, leaning more towards cabaret and musical than opera, something Violina Anguelov, who plays Dinah, describes as a challenge for an opera-trained singer.  Yet, she says, it was the 1950s American accent that proved hardest!  The story itself Anguelov describes with a smile as ‘relevant to our time and all times’.

The strikingly handsome Thato Machona takes the role of Sam having last won warm praise for his part as the young Nelson Mandela in Michael William’s Mandela Trilogy.  Three high-spirited members of the Voice of the Nation Studio sing the roles of the trio: Nonhlanhla Yende (recently returned from playing Bess in the acclaimed UK tour of Porgy and Bess), Lukhanyo Moyake (Jacquino in CTO’s massive production of Fidelio) and Owen Metsileng (Marcello in La Boheme).

With set and costumes by the young and funky Tina Driedijk and under the direction of the irrepressible Matthew Wild (one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans 2012) – who has a special talent for coaxing ‘naturalness’ from his casts – Trouble in Tahiti is set to be a performance of tender introspection and 1950s allure.

Daisy Ions

Cape Town Opera makes its debut at the Fugard Theatre with this touring production of Trouble in Tahiti, which stars Violina Anguelov and singers from the CTO Voice of the Nation Studio. The show starts at 7.30pm, with the first half dedicated to a musical introduction to the life of Leonard Bernstein. Tickets cost R 90 from Computicket.

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