Leonard Bernstein's early 1950s one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, a study of a suburban marriage in trouble, looks more like a masterpiece every time I renew acquaintance with it.
Director Matthew Eberhardt had made some changes to his Opera North staging – Theatre Royal, Nottingham, UK, 18 November 2021 – which we first saw four years ago. Quirijn de Lang returned to the role of Sam, the husband for whom the office and the local gym are higher priorities than his family's emotional needs. 'There's a law', in which he spells out his macho philosophy, was even more biting this time round. Sandra Piques Eddy brought out Dinah, his wife's, vulnerability – her dream aria, 'I was standing in a garden', was moving without overt sentimentality – while in 'What a movie!', her outburst of exasperation at the awfulness of the one she's just been to see, she hinted at an underlying toughness. The rumbustious 'Island Magic', her potted re-telling of the film's ridiculous story, was properly a showstopper.
Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield (both men also appeared in the previous run) were a sassy vocal Trio, swinging into their radio jingles – ironic hymns to the joys of suburban living – and occasional comments on the action, with great panache.
Junior, confidently played by Isaac Sarsfield, had his (silent) role expanded from last time. It still felt like a miscalculation to put on stage a character intended to be off-stage throughout. His presence at a number of points pulled focus from Sam and Dinah, who should be the centre of attention. But at least the two tackiest moments from the 2017 run had been dropped.
Together, Quirijn de Lang and Sarah Piques Eddy also convincingly embodied Sam and Dinah's longing, underneath all the bickering, to get their relationship back on track, if only they knew how. In the final scene they agree to go to see the same film Dinah heaped scorn on earlier, hoping the cinema's 'paid-for magic' might rub off on their situation. It was a deeply poignant moment, but the Trio quietly crooning the words 'Island Magic' at the very end feels like a miscalculation on Bernstein's part, underlining a point that doesn't need making.
Conductor Martin Pickard and the Orchestra of Opera North kept everything tight and rhythmic, or expansively lyrical, as needed.
Phoenix Dance Theatre, based in Leeds, like Opera North, took over the stage for the second half. First up was Halfway and Beyond, a ten-minute dance piece to words by poet Kadijah Ibrahim (whose contribution was, I assume, pre-recorded; he didn't appear for a curtain-call at the end). With choreography by director Dane Hurst, and with percussionists from the Opera North orchestra playing what I guess was a semi-improvised score, it was designed as a bridge between the two main works, exploring similar issues of conflict and longing for a better life, the 'quiet place' that Bernstein himself seemed to be constantly searching for.
Impressive as this was, it scarcely prepared us for Phoenix Dance Theatre's jaw-dropping new choreography to the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. While not reflecting the details of the show's plot, it explored the same emotional territory, of relationships trying to reach across cultural divides, with tragic outcomes. The contemporary urban setting was symbolised by Charles Edwards' set, incorporating work by Leeds graffiti artist Hyro. The eleven dancers threw themselves into their roles with astonishing physical flexibility, with not a single superfluous move or gesture, but with everything tightly focused.
Matching the energy on stage, the members of the orchestra played their socks off, with powerful, exhilarating results. And as an upbeat to Steven Spielberg's new film version of the original show it could scarcely have been more aptly timed.
Copyright © 11 December 2021