Trouble in Tahiti / Trial by Jury

Leonard Bernstein / Sir Arthur Sullivan & W S Gilbert

Opera North

Theatre Royal, Newcastle

On 10 November 2017

Review by Peter Lathan

The final pairing in Opera North’s Newcastle Little Greats season brings together two short pieces, each just 45 minutes long, of widely different natures.

Bernstein’s 1952 piece Trouble in Tahiti could be seen as the obvious—perhaps the ultimate—development of the verismo approach to opera exemplified by Pagilacci, Cavalleria Rusticana and Osud as we watch the slow falling apart of the marriage of middle class Americans Sam (Quirijn de Lang) and Dinah (Wallis Giunta)—the stuff, in fact, of many a soap opera. No huge emotions, no raging passions, no angst-filled arias, just a sad recognition that something is wrong and that they have no idea what to do about it.

And in the middle of it all, playing with his toys, the real victim of it all, their son Junior (Charlie Southby), whose moment of glory, a performance in the school play, neither of his parents turn up to see.

But his father does give him a new toy.

And it’s set amid images—musical and, in this production, visual—of that romantic dream, the little white house, the place of happiness and contentment.

The piece opens in a radio studio where a jazz trio (Fflur Wynn, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield) sings of the joys of living in that dreamland of the little white house in suburbia—and the idyllic picture they create is followed by Sam and Dinah’s arguments over breakfast.

Charles Edwards’s set, primarily three trucks, swings swiftly and easily from radio studio to dining room, office, gym changing room and park bench, and features massive adverts for those things which will bring domestic bliss—real wood kitchen unit doors and a television. One in particular, which towers over the park bench on which the couple sit tongue-tied, wanting but unable to make real contact, shows a young couple, he in military uniform, as they plan their dream home. “It’s a promise”, the caption of the torn and tattered poster reads.

Faultless performances from all concerned, but for me the stand-out was Wallis Giunta. It’s hard to believe that she was the boy in L’enfant et les sortilèges, so different and yet so convincing she was in both.

And yes, Trouble in Tahiti is opera, not music theatre!

To couple it with Trial by Jury, written more than 75 years earlier and a comic operetta to boot, seems rather odd, but the pairing actually works very well. Tahiti deals with a relationship which is sliding into breakdown whilst Trial is about a relationship which didn’t really get off the ground, for it is set in a court case for breach of promise. At the end of the first, we are left feeling deep sadness because these two don’t know how to salvage their marriage, although they wish to, whereas the second is a comedic romp from beginning to end.

Trial by Jury was Gilbert and Sullivan’s second collaboration and contains much that will characterise their work for the next two decades, both musically and textually. The Judge’s explanation of how he became a Judge, for example, is very reminiscent of Sir Joseph Porter telling us how he became “the ruler of the Queen’s Navee.”

But no patter song!

This production is prefaced by a short scene written by director John Savournin which relocates the trial to the 1930s and casts the Plaintiff, Angelina (Amy Freston), as a starlet who, on her arrival in court, is accompanied by her Bridesmaids, who are, in fact, a group of chorus girls.

And costume designer Gabrielle Dalton goes to town on her costume for Angelina and her girls, her “wedding dress” with its transparent skirt looking more like a stage vamp’s costume than anything else. And the Defendant’s loudly striped blue suit is a nice touch too.

Director Savournin extracts every last drop of comedy out of the piece. Jeremy Peaker’s Judge is lecherous, a drinker and thoroughly corrupt whilst the Defendant (Nicholas Watts) is equally unsavoury: he jilted Angelina because she bored him and anyway he’s a smoker, a drunkard and a bully—he says so himself. Angelina is the archetypal sweet little innocent betrayed and all she wants is to take him for every penny she can get.

Every individual on the stage has his or her little (or larger) bit to add to the comedy, from the choreographed showbiz of the Bridesmaids (movement by Tim Claydon) to the sad little man continually waving his “I love Angelina” sign in the air.

This is a wonderful opportunity for the Chorus of Opera North to show their talents and versatility and they seize it with both hands.

As ever with Opera North, the performances are excellent and I, for one, was swept along by the Gilbertian wit and Sullivan’s wonderful tunes. And so, in fact, were the rest of the audience.

Yes, G&S are old fashioned in today’s world, their values and attitudes are very definitely Victorian and there is more than a little truth in Jonathan Miller’s description of the Savoy Operas as being “UKIP set to music” but they have the saving grace of writing some good tunes and being very funny—and actually satirising those who failed to live up to the values they espoused. Do we really have to abandon artistic works because times (and values) have changed?

The Little Greats season has given us a glimpse of the vast panorama that is opera, performed by a company of great talent. Loved it!