Don’t expect an elaborate stage design, an Italian libretto, an implausible and fable-like plot, or an over-the-top wardrobe when you go and see Leonard Bernstein’s opera, Trouble in Tahiti. This 45 minute one-act opera is none of the above. It has rather been described as ‘…an explicitly American opera that eschews European conventions and favours nativist vernacular’.
The audience gets a glimpse into the life of an archetypal suburban couple, Sam (Thato Machona) and Dinah (Violina Anguelov). They live in a typical suburban house, seem to have everything they might want and yet have lost sight of their affection and love for one another. The plot is real and brutally honest and while the libretto allows for a chuckle or two, it is mostly disillusioning.
The story is set over seven scenes with a trio of jazz singers providing the background and plot of each of the scenes in music reminiscent of the 1950s advertising jingles. Bernstein himself described this trio as ‘a Greek Chorus born of radio commercials’. As a day in suburbia unravels, the audience sees Sam and Dinah each trapped in their own worlds, each living a life no more real than the Technicolor advertisements surrounding them.
The audience gets no resolution from this short satire and Bernstein himself had the need to revisit Sam and Dinah in his more substantial late opera, A Quiet Place, where he attempted to resolve some of the issues alluded to in Trouble in Tahiti.
The cast of Cape Town Opera did an excellent job of bringing this production to audiences across South Africa, from Polokwane and Rustenburg, to De Aar and Knysna. And after having taken this show on the road (literary) it concluded with a three night showing at the Fugard Theatre, the perfect venue for such an intimate tale.
The opera is preceded by a musical lecture entitled ‘The Musical Marriages of Leonard Bernstein’. With a first-rate script by Matthew Wild and an animated presentation by Francis Chouler, the audience is introduced to the work and life of this great American composer and conductor. Together with performances of favourite Bernstein songs, the relationship between Bernstein’s music and his infamous and complicated personal life is explored.
The audience thoroughly enjoyed this informative and entertaining musical primer, which inadvertently also provided another layer of complexity to the opera Trouble in Tahiti; Sam and Dinah are clearly based on Bernstein’s own parents, and one cannot help but wonder how much of the tensions between man and wife are an expression of Bernstein’s own history of complicated relationships and homosexual desires.
Designer Tina Driedijk did an excellent job of strictly adhering to Bernstein’s original and extensive stage requirements, which insisted inter alia on simplicity of execution. The only note of colour in this visual production is provided by Sam and Dinah themselves, again accentuating the solitude of these two individuals trapped in their separate worlds. The reduced 7-person orchestra under the skilled guidance of Alexander Fokkens played immaculately and was the perfect ensemble for this intimate production. And the cast was equally brilliant, with special mention deserved by Violina Anguelov’s comic showpiece ‘Island Magic’ backed by the trio with ‘What a Movie!’
Be warned though, typical of advertising jingles, the music of this short satire might just get stuck in your head even days after the performance:
Mornin’ sun kisses the windows, kisses the walls
Of the little white house;
Kisses the door-knob, kisses the roof,
Kisses the door-knob and pretty red roof…..
Andra le Roux-Kemp
Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti presented by the Cape Town Opera at the Fugard Theatre from 15 to 18 August 2012.