Double dose of modern opera
Trouble in Tahiti
By Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Lindy Hume
By Graeme Koehne
Libretto by Louis Nowra
Directed by Neil Armfield
Company B Belvoir and OzOpera
Belvoir St Theatre, Syndey
Until December 13
Review by Sandra Hawker
These two short operas are billed as "comic" and "tabloid". The terms are apt, and seeing the performances is a rewarding experience.
The single word "Suburbia" hangs glittering over the action in Trouble in Tahiti, Leonard Bernstein's powerful portrait of a disintegrating marriage in the US of the early 1950s.
In the opening scene, a trio of slick TV-style salespeople sing clever songs about the joys of life in a suburban, all-American nuclear family striving to outdo its neighbours in conspicuous consumption.
Husband Sam, in black-framed glasses, and wife Dinah, in Doris Day brunch coat, bicker over breakfast. He complains, in proper operatic style, "This coffee is burned", and Dinah retorts, "Make it yourself".
Thus begins the powerful juxtaposition of banal marital squabbles with Bernstein's brilliant, clashing music that makes this such a powerful realisation of poignant themes.
All the elements of the US of the '50s that we are familiar with from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Archie comics and the musical Oklahoma are portrayed with vivid, in-your-face energy and colour.
The trio of salespeople, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, circle and glide around the stage on a gleaming refrigerator and washing machine. Dinah complains about Sam's long hours of work and depends on her analyst for her emotional and psychological survival.
She expresses the longing of the lonely, loveless suburban housewife for some "island magic" in a moving aria. (Those of us who were of the right age and inclination to fall in love with the musical South Pacific appreciate the attraction of the notion of south sea islands as idyllic escape from our humdrum existence in the '50s.)
Sam is having an affair with his secretary, pumping iron in the gym and "too busy" to go to see his son in the school play.
Bernstein skilfully builds the contrast of the myths of the advertising world in one of its crassest forms with the reality of a dysfunctional family disintegrating under the weight of disappointed dreams and frustrated desires.
Lindy Hume's direction is confident, the acting vital and the singing beautifully strong. The set and costumes realise in imaginative detail what we would now call camp retro-Americana: they provide a lot of the humour in the piece and allow us to feel comfortable laughing at things which at the same time we recognise as sad, if not tragic.
The performance by OzOpera and Company B Belvoir is as vibrant and energetic as Leonard Bernstein's music. The intimate setting of the Belvoir Street Theatre maximises the impact of the voices of all the singers — Christine Douglas, Helen Noonan, Gary Rowley, Grant Smith and Irene Waugh.
The score, and even the libretto, remind us of the characteristically US and possibly most popular of Bernstein's works, West Side Story. The syncopated jazz rhythms, particularly in the singing of the trio, are strongly reminiscent of George Gershwin, and some of the orchestration of Aaron Copland.
Readers of Green Left Weekly are likely to get more out of Trouble in Tahiti than the other short opera that follows it in this double bill, called Love Burns.
Graeme Koehne wrote the music and Louis Nowra the libretto for this piece, based on the real life story that inspired (if that is the right word) the bizarre "cult" movie The Honeymoon Killers. In the way of many modern dramas, it attempts to portray psychotic behaviour in a witty, humorous style.
It is the story of Angela, a psychiatric nurse, who falls in love with a gigolo called Jack. Together they lead a macabre life, murdering a series of women taken in by Jack's charm.
The acting and singing in this piece are as intense and powerfully dramatic as in the first, and the stage direction and musical performance every bit as professional and confident.
But this opera fails to engross as does Trouble in Tahiti, because it is simply portraying a couple of monstrous human beings who end up being electrocuted for their crimes. Ultimately we are left watching a couple of freaks get their just deserts: there is not even an attempt to take a stand on capital punishment.
The musical direction of Warwick Stengards and the playing of the sizeable orchestra are a delight and make this double bill a pleasure to experience, although those of us who like a bit of social analysis with our entertainment will probably prefer the first of the two pieces.