Trouble in Tahiti @ RNCM Studio Theatre
More than 50 years on, Berstein’s Broadway-inspired, one-act opera is still refreshingly direct. In this production at the Royal Northern College of Music, Jonathan Ainscough takes on a hidden gem in the repertory, with a cast expertly at ease with the mash-up of genres.
Trouble in Tahiti is a day in the life of married couple Sam and Dinah, living the (idealised, consumerist, capitalist, post-war, so-called…) American Dream. Popular and jazz influences are an integral part of Berstein’s writing, but he also includes frank imitations of these styles with a finger-clicking, scat-singing Greek chorus. The three singers describe the glorious life of “su-bur-bi-a,” but their words later reveal themselves to be a scathing satire.
A vocally robust performance is given by Arthur Bruce, attentive to the more vulnerable side of Sam’s character. Michaela Parry shines in her triumph of an aria, ‘What movie!’ – both heart-wrenching and fiercely humorous, she has the audience hanging off her every word.
Such poignancy is suited to the intimate venue, the minimal set (dotted with iconic 1950s artefacts) allowing for a sense of symmetry that emphasises not only the couple’s isolation but also their parallel emotions. With no pit, perhaps the band could have been better incorporated on stage, but credit is due for achieving suitable, consistent balance in a dry acoustic.
The libretto conveys a culture where competition is everything, “men are created unequal,” and where sex is dealt with by secretaries. Nowadays, however, when socio-critique of capitalism is more typical, the excitement and edginess of Bernstein’s work is at risk of being underestimated. It’s surprising, then, that Ainscough doesn't push characterisations further – the pizzazz of the chorus, Sam’s deluded-ness, Dinah’s suppression – seeing as it’s not the story of a marriage between two people, rather an entire landscape of conforming “little white” houses.