A rather outspoken maverick clergyman, now retired, once told me that if he were for some reason obligated to attend an opera performance, he would prefer to go to one sung in Italian with English ‘surtitles’ (the same as ‘subtitles’ but these appear above the stage in order to be seen by the audience).
He would, he thought, have a far better understanding of the libretto than he would trying to decipher opera sung in English. Cheekiness aside, there are some opera aficionados who would applaud his stance: they tell me that there are certain expressions and intonations that get lost in sung translation, just as Shakespeare plays are apparently always at their best in English.
Such matters need not concern the audience attending this production of Tahiti!, with both short operas in this double-bill originally written in English in the first place. The problem wasn’t with anyone’s diction but with the acoustics of the venue. A 14-strong orchestra led by Karin Hendrickson, wonderful and note-perfect as they were, almost drowned out the singers on occasion, thus making a section of unaccompanied singing comparatively angelic, particularly when all five performers were singing in harmony.
In the first half, a new composition called Pacific Pleasures, the show came across more as a concert than a fully-staged production. But it’s certainly very spirited at times. The second half, a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, is one of those ‘day in the life of’ stories, making what preceded it (in hindsight) a tad rushed, even if the dramaturgy works: just before the interval, Sam (Edward Laurenson) and Dinah (Rebecca Cuddy) get married, a decision taken after (if the story is to be taken literally) just one date. Thus there is at least an explanation for all the squabbling and disagreement in the second half – which makes, mind you, for some glorious and lively singing. It is only now that they are getting to know one another properly, and finding that there really isn’t such a thing as a perfect human being after all.
Sam gets his big number, set in a gym. I didn’t quite catch all the lyrics (that so good they are too good orchestra again) but it seemed to be about men, some of whom simply won’t achieve their ambition, however hard they try, and others who succeed at practically everything regardless of effort or deservedness. In short, he has delusions of grandeur as he pumps weights. Dinah’s big number sees her breaching the fourth wall and singing from the stalls, as she gives, through song, a synopsis of a movie, acted out on stage by a ‘Jazz Trio’ (Eleri Gwilym, Joshua Baxter and Ashley Mercer). “Escapist Technicolor twaddle”? I don’t think she liked it.
Elsewhere, the detailed descriptions of the couple’s evening out are surprisingly compelling, given some of the lyrics. “Focus on the screen,” sings Gwilym, in the role of Dinah’s conscience. But what else would you do at the cinema? That said, it was, overall, useful to have one’s private thoughts voiced out in this way – I couldn’t count the number of shows where the audience must guess what a character is really thinking. The subsequent bedroom activity was covered on stage, almost disappointingly, with too many bedsheets – or have I seen too many ‘let it all hang’ National Theatre productions?
More sad than satirical, though not without moments of humour, this is accessible opera done with poise and confidence. It may not tell us anything new, but the simplistic staging and feasible opera plot in which nobody dies make for a refreshingly thoughtful and reflective production. Look out, too, for the subtle nods to the motion picture Titanic in the first half.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Set in a typical residential suburb, Tahiti! tells us the story of a young couple who, despite apparently having all the key ingredients for happiness and having been afforded all the opportunities to hold on to it and be truly happy, alas… are not.
Directed by Jorge Balça, Karin Hendrickson conducts a vibrant and talented orchestra of young musicians. As our Tahiti! unfolds, the five-strong ensemble cast will ask you to consider ‘what’s your Tahiti?’
Using a range of dramatic strategies, such as physical theatre and puppeteering, Tahiti! explores the extent to which our lives are already mapped out before we start living them.
Jorge Balça is a London-based actor, theatre & opera director, teacher and academic. He trained as a countertenor in Portugal, before moving to the UK in 1998 when he started focusing on directing during his BA Performing Arts – Drama at Middlesex University. Since then, Jorge leads workshops and research projects in the areas of opera, physical theatre, interdisciplinary performance and cross-culturalism. Directing credits include ‘Don Giovanni… a fashion opera’ by W.A. Mozart (Goodenough), ‘The Magic Flute’ by W.A. Mozart (Goodenough/Bloomsbury Festival), ‘Tango Finale’ by M. Corbett (+logo), ‘The Tunnel of Rats’ by A.N. Rosa (Stonecrabs) and more.
Words and Music (Trouble In Tahiti) by Leonard Bernstein
Music (Pacific Pleasures) by Alannah Marie Halay
Libretto (Pacific Pleasures) by Jorge Balça
Directed by: Jorge Balça
Musical Director: Karin Harcourt
Lighting Designer: Will Alder
Dinah – Rebecca Cuddy
Sam – Edward Laurenson
Ensemble – Eleri Gwilym
Ensemble – Joshua Baxter
Ensemble – Ashley Mercer
Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London, WC1N 2AB
25th & 26th March 2017, 8pm