The Lowry, Salford.
17 November 2017.
Until this month, my only recent experience of opera was a slight obsession with a recording of John Adams’ ‘Doctor Atomic’ and seeing members of Opera North’s Chorus perform in a production of Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods‘ at West Yorkshire Playhouse last year.
Apparently the involvement of the Chorus in that production prompted Opera North to get them more fully involved in their latest season ‘The Little Greats’. After enjoying their performances so much in Leeds I was tempted to hear them in action again. I was also intrigued, as one of the aims of this season of six short operas, performed in pairs each night, was to attract people who are unfamiliar with the art form. Although the members of the Chorus were involved in five of the six pieces, they took on all the principal roles in ‘Trial by Jury’. So it was this one I went for. On the night I saw it at The Lowry it was paired up with ‘Trouble in Tahiti’. They are two very different works but they both have quirks that mark them out from traditional ideas of opera.
Don’t expect too much (or even any) insight in to operatic technique or vocal dexterity – I went as an opera novice and that’s the only perspective I can bring. So, here goes.
Trouble in Tahiti
When people talk of Making America Great Again – you wonder which ‘great’ period they’re referring to? Perhaps it was the 1950s when their economy boomed and ordinary Americans started to feel increasingly well off? Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Trouble in Tahiti’ is a product of that period and it examines an ordinary day in the life of an unhappily married couple, Sam (Quirijn de Lang) and Dinah (Wallis Giunta). An America at ease with itself and a couple at odds.
After burnt coffee and harsh words at the breakfast table, they both go their separate ways. Her – housework, analyst, trip to the cinema, unfulfilled and yearning for something more. Him – office, gym, locker room, agonising over what it means to be a man. They have a young son but he is far from their thoughts.
Their daily routine is haunted by the cheerful voices of a trio of singers who extol the virtues of suburban life – products, property, money. The trio’s upbeat jazz-inflected rhythms peppered with the language of advertisers are a stark contrast to the chilly unease of Sam and Dinah’s lives.
The singing sellers constantly celebrate “the little white house” in the suburbs. Here though it feels as if this couple’s domestic life is being staged on a Hollywood backlot. Advertising billboards form the walls of the family home. The promotions for kitchen units and televisions are regularly swung around to reveal they are propped up by wooden frames, just like on a film set. Here, the opera begins in a recording studio, a backstage glimpse of the production line that feeds people’s dreams and creates their cravings for more. Pointedly, the consumerist world encroaching on the couple’s lives brings no comfort, only self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
Charles Edward’s design is stylish and elegant. Lit sparingly, it feels at times like the family are surrounded by an empty darkness.
Musically it veers from full-on Broadway pastiche with the escapist nonsense of ‘Island Magic’ to tender intensity with Dinah’s yearning “There is a garden”. Tim Claydon’s graceful choreography creates a smooth journey through the shifts in scene and tone.
Quirijn de Lang and Wallis Giunta bring an engaging vulnerability to their characters. In their different ways both have lost their bearings. While Dinah dissects her dreams with her analyst, we see Sam at his office desk contemplating a photo of his wife. Director Matthew Eberhardt deploys an unsparing, almost documentary-like, gaze as the spotlight falls on the couple’s lives. Their interactions feel small, intimate and natural.
It’s a subtle, melancholic production that edges reflectively towards an aptly unresolved ending.
Trial By Jury
In contrast to what has gone before Gilbert & Sullivans’ ‘Trial by Jury’ is a total riot. Silence in court? You must be joking!
But before we go through the doors to face the judge and hear the case, we’re given some context. A glamorous plaintiff is bringing a court case, under the old law of breach of promise, against her intended husband who has tried to call the wedding off. Director John Savourin has created a spoken prologue that conveniently sets the scene for those of us new to the opera but also cleverly creates an added layer of interpretation. Savourin cloaks the spurned Angelina in the dazzle of celebrity and the new introduction sets that all up nicely.
Amy J. Payne plays a breathless Hedda Hopperesque reporter who fills us in on the background to the case and identifies Angelina as a much adored Hollywood starlet. Meanwhile the gathering crowds of fans outside the court prepare us for the fact that the jury is unlikely to be immune to the widespread sympathy for the broken-hearted plaintiff. The arrival of Angelina’s six ‘jilted’ bridesmaids signal that things may be about to descend into farce.
The music sets off at a gallop, packed with wordplay, and the business of the court moves at the same rapid speed. The jury box and the judge’s bench spin, free from any fixed foundations, as the straight-faced legal proceedings become more and more ludicrous. There are elements of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire like, the judge bounds up the steps of the court and the bridesmaids flap out in formation as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
Gabrielle Dalton’s costume designs create colourful chaos in the court room with red gown, blue pinstripes, pink net, blue feathers and the bridesmaids all aflutter like an excitable flock of flamingos.
Amidst the clamour for a conviction, from a jury blinded by celebrity, there are nice flashes of fun. There’s a juror with a taste for declarations of love for the plaintiff via placards, Angelina’s handbag dog keeps popping up around the courtroom and there’s an unmistakable chink of empty bottles from beneath the sozzled judge’s bench.
It’s totally ridiculous but there is a kernel of truth about the bias of the legal system. The addition of the celebrity angle and a media circus creates resonance for a modern-day audience familiar with the corrupting influence of fame.
It’s frothy and fun, and performed with joyful abandon.
Thoughts on ‘The Little Greats’.
As a format ‘The Little Greats’ did exactly what it promised, creating an opportunity to see high quality opera productions of an unintimidating length! It was also an incredibly enjoyable experience. Would it make me more willing to try a longer, full length opera? Well, I’m already looking at Opera North’s next season, and deciding which of the three operas I would want to see, and every one of them is significantly longer than 45 minutes.
Random reflections after a first night at the opera…
On the evidence of this one night, compared to theatre goers, opera audiences seem much more willing to focus on the performance. There appeared to be no talking and a distinct lack of crunching, rustling, slurping and rattling. The audience are asked to silence digital alarms as well as their mobile phones.
Plus, most theatres could learn a thing or two from Opera North’s very readable programmes – especially the detailed ‘What Next’ section highlighting sources of further reading and recommending relevant CDs, DVDs and downloads.