Review: Bernstein double bill by Opera North, Theatre Royal Nottingham, 18 November 2021

Opera North’s intriguing double bill of Bernstein opens up a little-known work to a wider audience and upends expectations from one of his best known, West Side Story. The pieces function together through their common themes of communication and connection, albeit in differing contexts.  The two are bridged by a spoken word piece accompanied by dance.

‘Trouble in Tahiti’ is a searing examination of a stagnant marriage, and it is painful to watch the intimacy and longing unfold.  It is set in the 1950s, that era of the American Dream, but it feels strikingly modern. The music switches pace and timing, longer phrases compete with bursts of activity, words overlap and layer on each other – the influences of jazz can clearly be heard.  It is, interestingly, the only stage work for which Bernstein wrote all the lyrics, and he pulls no punches.  The clean, close harmony singing of the Trio (Laura Kelly-McInroy, Joseph Shovelton and Nicholas Butterfield) is redolent of the peppy radio ads of the 1950s, and reminds us that the consumerist dream was at its height and the pursuit of money and status a powerful motivator.

Sandra Piques Eddy as Dinah is heart-achingly good. Her hopes and desires for a warm and intimate relationship fully expressed in her solo ‘I Was Standing in a Garden’. Here, she is filled with light and hope, her imagination fertile and emotions set free, in contrast to the cold reality of modern life.  Eddy perfectly controls the clear power of her voice, echoing the constraint she must show in Dinah’s frustrating life. 

Her husband Sam (Quirijn de Lang) is equally lost, pursuing society’s expectations at the expense of opening up to real human experience.  ‘There is a law about men; there are men who can make it and men who cannot’, he sings, revealing the pressure on men to be the bread-winners and always in pursuit of ‘winning’. De Lang is mesmerising, showing Sam’s public persona fighting with his personal wishes with great subtlety.  His resonant voice has authority but vulnerability too.

Trouble in Tahiti is a fascinating piece and one that deserves a second viewing in order to fully appreciate the powerful score and many comments on society and the loneliness of modern life.

Halfway and Beyond is a specially commissioned spoken word piece by writer Khadijah Ibrahiim. He voices the piece, whilst dancers from Phoenix Dance Theatre perform. It connects the two main works in several ways: its themes are about separation and possibilities; the set is the same construction but re-configured, and the son of Dinah and Sam appears through all three, connecting them literally.

West Side Story Symphonic Dances was written by Bernstein as a stand-alone piece of music, specifically to free it from the constraints of the musical and it’s story-line. For Phoenix Dance Theatre, Dane Hurst choreographs a ‘matching’ piece for Trouble in Tahiti, also set in the 1950s but reflecting on the conflict in South Africa at that time. Individuals and communities, wanting to work together and find love and connection, are separated by the forces of Apartheid and the political and personal ramifications therein. Segregation and laws prohibiting sex between black and white people led to protest, and inevitably, tragedy results.

The dance reflects the dynamic music, energetic and exciting at one moment, lyrical and reflective the next.  There is a wonderful individualism in the dancer’s movements and costume, but they work beautifully as a body also. Sensuous duets are enveloping and intimate, tension and conflict expressed in explosive lifts and runs. The iconic music is revealed in a new way, capable of expressing and containing much more than ‘just’ the story of Romeo and Juliet (Tony and Maria).

It is an interesting evening, with so many art forms brought together and mirroring themes across time, space and circumstance.  Throughout, the outstanding Opera North orchestra lovingly wring every inch of expression from the music, making it sound like a joy to play. In fact, conductor Anthony Hermus is so enthusiastic in his role as to be mistaken as one of the dancers! Opera North show, once again, their bravery and intellect in putting together unusual pieces with challenging themes, and producing something complex, educational, but above all, enjoyable.

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