REVIEW | Trouble In Tahiti & Trial By Jury | Little Greats at Opera North

Two very different short operas make up this Little Greats double bill. Beyond the fact that both have been described as satire, it is difficult to hear any echoes, in terms of music or narrative, between Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble In Tahiti and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial By Jury, while visually the only link is a radio mic used in both productions.

Separated by seventy-seven years, and by the Atlantic ocean, there was certainly a sense that there had been a substantial change in the make-up of the audience in the Grand Theatre during the interval.

Trouble in Tahiti juxtaposes the 50s suburban idyll of  the American Dream with its reality of mutual disenchantment and emptiness. The Trio – a kind of Greek chorus – provides the advertising agency view – sun-kissed little white houses in the suburbs filled with shiny new consumer goods and with shiny happy people – while we watch Sam and Dinah as he reads the newspaper and she serves breakfast, both bicker with one another. The kitchen is decorated with advertising for household appliances. The promise of marital bliss is a new housing development which acts as a backdrop to Sam and Dinah’s meeting in the park.  Dinah mocks posters for the film Trouble in Tahiti, but is seduced by them, despite herself.

It is firmly set in the 1950s (the opera was premiered in 1952), but this doesn’t get in the way of the eternal relevance of its theme – the way in which men and women, trapped in their respective gender stereotypes, cannot see or hear each other clearly.

Wallis Giunta (unrecognisable from her role as the Child in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges) is extraordinary. Utterly convincing as the all-American wife/mother, she is almost the embodiment of Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’. Quirijn de Lang has some fine comedic moments as he preens himself in front of the mirror, telling himself that men are either born winners or losers, (naturally he is the former), but he also conveys the dark side of this equation as he (shoulders slumped) reminds himself that winners have to pay.

The musical range is stunning, filled with constant shifts: from pastiche (the Trio’s light jazz and scat, the way-over-the-top faux South Pacific ‘Island Magic’) to Dinah’s poignant ballad, ‘I was Standing’, a song so steeped in longing it shows up the gulf between the dream of a shining garden (where ‘love will teach us harmony and grace’) and the daily reality.

From Bernstein to Gilbert & Sullivan’s first big success, Trial by Jury, is quite a shift.  It too is satirical, but a feather-light confection of a satire – one could not ask it to bear the weight of any serious analysis of its gender stereotypes or social attitudes.  Dating from 1875, the action is in this production is relocated to the 1920s with a newly written spoken prologue in which a celebrity reporter breathlessly fills us in on the background to a breach of promise case.

Having been introduced to some of the key players, we are whisked into the courtroom and its chaotic proceedings. The usher’s stern injunctions (‘from bias free of every kind, This trial must be tried’) are immediately undercut by his advice to condole with the plaintiff and set aside the arguments of the defendant. The judge (‘and a good judge too’) appears blissfully unaware of key aspects of law, the counsel for the plaintiff confuses bigamy with burglary, while the defence counsel is visibly swayed by the plaintiff’s feminine wiles – it is that kind of a story.

The physical comedy is beautifully played, as judge, jurors, defendant (plus her bridesmaids) clamber over and/or drape themselves across the courtroom furniture.  The music is as one would expect from G&S, and I imagine that if one loves G&S one would love this – certainly the audience was vociferously enthusiastic.  Anyone resistant to the charms of the music will at least be entertained by the splendid comic acting and vocal skills of the leading performers, Amy Freston and Nicholas Watts as Angelina and Edwin, Richard Mosley-Evans as the Usher, and Jeremy Peaker as ‘The Learned Judge’.

For me, the Bernstein piece was the triumph of the evening, gloriously eclectic music, fabulous singing, and an examination of relations between the sexes that had both wry humour and real, deep sadness.

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You can catch Trouble in Tahiti paired with Cavalleria Rusticana on 19 October, and with Trial by Jury in a matinee performance on 21 October and then on tour from 27 October.