Trouble in Tahiti, an early work of Leonard Bernstein and performed by the Cambridge University Opera Society to mark his centenary, oscillates between the worlds of his later stage works, West Side Story and Candide. Its portrayal of a day in the life of a troubled married couple moves between being lyrical, sincere and being cynical and satirical. The production and the cast admirably keep these two modes constantly in play, presenting Sam and Dinah sympathetically but with an acidity that means the piece didn’t become overly sentimental.
The set, made up of a collage of 1950s advertisements, was spare and flexible. Director Eleanor Burke used the admittedly non-abundant dramatic resources of the Frankopan Hall in Jesus College to great advantage, suggesting an emotional austerity to counter the luxury evoked in the advertisements. Burke effectively used coloured lighting, in the form of shades of pink, green and blue, to suggest technicolour melodrama and queasy disquiet. She drew good individual work from the cast with finely observed character details, although the principal leads Gillian Hurst and Louis Wilson didn’t seem to quite click onstage. Trouble in Tahiti is, as a piece, episodic and can be disjointed, but Burke kept a tight progression which tied the scenes together.
Music director Oliver Cope coaxed the reduced chamber ensemble nicely through the jazzier, spikier music. There were signs of strain in more lyrical moments, particularly in the higher woodwind; the chamber ensemble sometimes threatened to overwhelm the singers and there were persistent problems with intonation. Generally, however, Cope dispatched the score’s rhythms precisely and drew a spirited sound from the musicians: at its best, the ensemble fizzed.
Both Louis Wilson as Sam and Gillian Hurst as Dinah seemed, to begin with, more at ease with the opera’s semi-comic moments than with its semi-tragic episodes. They performed their solo scenes and set-pieces expressively and perceptively, although they didn’t play quite as well to each other. Hurst’s performance in particular, however, deepened over the course of the play and became deeply moving. Although Hurst’s voice often sounded a little small, this did lend Dinah a greater pathos. The upper reaches of Wilson’s voice tended to dryness, but he nicely suggested a nuanced inner life for Sam – not an easy feat considering that the piece’s sympathies lie strongly with Dinah. The cast’s diction was uniformly impressive. The Greek-chorus of a jazz trio, sung by Constance Ayrton, Andrei Smid and Tom Moy, made a beautifully blended sound and hit the right tone of humour with a certain shining bleakness. All in all, the cast delivered an intelligent and nuanced performance.