Cape Town Opera: Trouble in TahitiClifford Graham
Clifford Graham: Cape Town Opera have made their live opera debut at The Fugard Theatre. It’s a brave step, but not a step that will go unnoticed.
Nor I’m sure, will it be their last. The Fugard Theatre Studio being the venue for this little gem of an opera, Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. Cape Town Opera have used this piece as an outreach to bring opera to audiences outside of their usual stages. It has toured extensively in its current form, using the most basic, but well-designed set by Tina Driedijk. Director Matthew Wild has brought a solid cast together to bring a lesser known opera to the fore. His off the wall style has once again hit the mark.
In Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein wanted to create an opera that would be immediately accessible to everyone. It uses as its basic theme a married couple who’s ability to communicate with each other has broken down, and presents a day in their life.
The opera received its first performance on 12 June 1952 at Bernstein's Festival of the Creative Arts on the campus of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts to an audience of nearly 3,000 people. It’s hard to imagine such a large audience given the smaller confines of The Fugard Theatre Studio used for this production.
As a full performance of Trouble in Tahiti will only take about 40 to 45 minutes, Matthew Wild has scripted an introductory programme, making up the first half of the evening. The Musical Marriages of Leonard Bernstein, narrated with skill by Francis Chouler, details the life and relationships of Bernstein with musical interludes. The company: Violina Anguelov, Thato Machona, Arline Jaftha, Nonhlanhla Yende, Lukhanyo Moyake, Owen Metsileng and Monde Masimini perform some of Bernstein’s best known songs to illustrate the story of his complex life. Most notably One Hand, One Heart from West Side Story. Subtle images projected onto a well-placed screen show Bernstein in some of his happier moments.
After the interval, the awaited performance of Trouble in Tahiti begins. A seven piece arrangement, perfectly suitable given the space restrictions, is conducted by Alexander Fokkens. It is relieving to note that the temptation to use pre-recorded orchestrations has been resisted. Live music is always so much better. Cleverly the opera is performed using modular blocks constructed to look like furniture of the period, placed in configurations serving as furniture, kitchen appliances and even a film screen. Nonhlanhla Yende, Lukhanyo Moyake and Monde Masimini make up a scat singing jazz trio, described by Bernstein as “A Greek chorus born of the radio commercial". They also make up some of the characters of the all too brief story. There are some wonderfully comic moments where a sort of spoken gibberish is used by the lesser characters. The opera juxtaposes the realities of sustaining urban life with the utopic American dream and all its pitfalls. Sam (Thato Machona) and Dinah (Violina Anguelov) have come to a point in their relationship where life’s mundane monotony has surpassed their once romantic existence. Both singers achieve very believable performances. Violina Anguelov shows her consummate skills to perfection in this piece. Thato Machona’s rich lyric baritone is pleasing and relaxed. Vocally, they make a good couple. The plot would have us think differently.
This smaller format opera is a joy to hear. It is to be recommended highly and would serve as a perfect starting point for anyone attending live opera for the first time.
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The Fugard Theatre, Cnr of Harrington Street and Caledon Street District Six Cape Town Western Cape South Africa