Opera North: Trouble in Tahiti & West Side Story (Bernstein Double Bill) – Lowry Theatre

I first watched Trouble in Tahiti when Opera North streamed it over lockdown. They led the way in making opera accessible, by having captioned, BSL interpreted, and audio described performances available for their audience members to watch. It also gave many people a way to try watching opera for the first time for free without having to spend money on tickets and travel.

Bernstein’s short one-act opera was one of the best things I watched online throughout the pandemic, so when I saw that it would be returning to The Lowry, I jumped at the opportunity to watch it in person with a live orchestra, conducted by Martin Pickard.

Trouble in Tahiti West Side Story Opera North Phoenix Dance Theatre Bernstein Double Bill - Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review
A perfect American suburbia. Picture Credit – Richard H. Smith.

On the surface, Sam and Dinah live the perfect life in an idealised suburbia. A life which a trio of singers (Laura Kelly-McInroyJoseph Shovelton, and Nicholas Butterfield) depict in their upbeat, jingle-like radio broadcasts throughout Trouble in Tahiti.

Sam and Dinah are a married couple, with a nice house and a son, who are living the American Dream. Everything seems as perfect as the advertisements that comprise the walls of their house. Charles Edwards‘ perceptive stage design constantly creates clever contrasts throughout the opera because beneath the perfect facade, the couple are actually going through a rocky patch in their marriage.

Their marriage problems are exquisitely relayed by Sandra Piques Eddy and Quirijn de Lang in the heartbreaking, compassionate duet ‘Well, of all people!…‘. The chemistry between the two is achingly sorrowful and remorseful as they look back on the happier days of their marriage, questioning how they have slowly drifted apart.

Trouble in Tahiti West Side Story Opera North Phoenix Dance Theatre Bernstein Double Bill - Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review
‘Island Magic‘. Trouble in Tahiti. Picture Credit – Richard H. Smith.

Dutch baritone Quirijn de Lang has played the role of Sam since 2018, and his experience means that over the years, he has honed Sam’s character, crucially making him a sympathetic figure yearning to make things better, rather than a neglectful father. It is a true shame that when he reached the deepest notes in his register during his exuberant aria ‘There’s a Law‘, I struggled to hear him over the orchestra. Thankfully, there were surtitles accompanying the performance.

Both times I have watched Trouble in Tahiti, I found myself really rooting for Sam and Dinah to sort out their problems because it is obvious in the tender, affectionate performances by both singers that their characters really do care for each other. They clearly just don’t know how to bridge the chasm that has appeared in their marriage.

Trouble in Tahiti formed the first part of the Bernstein Double Bill at the Lowry.

Trouble in Tahiti West Side Story Opera North Phoenix Dance Theatre Bernstein Double Bill - Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review
West Side Story Symphonic Dances – Performed by Phoenix Dance Theatre. Picture Credit – Richard H. Smith.

After a short interval, Khadijah Ibrahiim‘s spoken word piece ‘Halfway and Beyond’ was accompanied by dancing from Phoenix Dance Theatre. I have to admit being taken by surprise because I was expecting the evening to jump straight into Bernstein’s West Side Story, this is a Bernstein double bill after all! I was not expecting a ten minute piece spoken word piece, which honestly felt slightly pretentious.

I suppose it serves me right for not looking at the programme beforehand, but I was not alone in my feelings as other audience members were audibly asking ‘What the hell was all that about?’ after the piece ended. ‘Was that it? Was that supposed to be West Side Story?’. To most people’s relief, it wasn’t long before the orchestra played the iconic ‘Prologue’ from West Side Story.

I absolutely love Phoenix Dance Theatre’s interpretation of this classic film and stage musical. Obviously, songs are truncated to fit into the shorter runtime, which means that fan favourites such as ‘America’, ‘I Feel Pretty’, and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke!’ are cut entirely. However, the essence of West Side Story remains, as the gangs dance off against each other and events take a violent turn.

Trouble in Tahiti West Side Story Opera North Phoenix Dance Theatre Bernstein Double Bill - Lowry Theatre Manchester Theatre Review
West Side Story Symphonic Dances – Performed by Phoenix Dance Theatre. Picture Credit – Richard H. Smith.

In an entirely unexpected turn, the main relationship in this dance interpretation is between two men, rather than Tony and Maria. It is utterly refreshing to see a multiracial gay relationship take centre stage like this. It added a wholesome freshness to a story I have seen many times.

Some may dub this as ‘virtue signalling’, but it is a relationship that is performed beautifully by Shawn Willis and Seirian Griffiths. Their passionate, tender dance duets were so elegant and graceful, I genuinely got emotional at the end of West Side Story Symphonic Dances.

This moved me in a way that I have never experienced through watching the musical before.  So I applaud Phoenix Dance Theatre and Opera North for making Bernstein’s West Side Story relevant and appealing to contemporary audiences, whilst reinforcing the story’s poignant message.

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