Bernstein: Trouble in Tahiti

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Bernstein
LABELS: BBC Opus Arte
ALBUM TITLE: Bernstein
WORKS: Trouble in Tahiti
PERFORMER: Karl Daymond, Stephanie Novacek, Tom Randle, Toby Stafford-Allen, Mary Hegarty; City of London Sinfonia/Paul Daniel; dir. Tom Cairns (TV studio recording, 2001)
CATALOGUE NO: OA 0838 D
This was one of a trio of short operatic films made by the ever-adventurous BBC Wales and shown on BBC2 two Christmases ago. Trouble in Tahiti was written in 1951, just before the great run of major stage works that would culminate six years later in West Side Story, and is another in that long line of works in pursuit of the ‘American opera’ (Weill’s Street Scene dates from only five years before). Bernstein wrote his own text and aimed to show the reality behind post-war prosperity, how ‘trouble’ in the form of marital unrest could still be found in the ‘paradise’ of all-mod-cons suburbia.

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Tom Cairns’s film is wonderfully in-period, using plenty of archive Fifties footage, in all its Technicolor brashness, to frame the scenes of Dinah and Sam going through their domestic bad patch. Stephanie Novacek and Karl Daymond are thoroughly convincing as the couple who are so self-obsessed they go to the movies or the gym rather than their son’s school play. Threading through the piece is a scat trio, setting the scene of ‘the little white house’ in suburbia, and commenting on the action like a latter-day Greek chorus. The music is in Bernstein’s richest vein: jazzy, melancholic and heart-warming all at once.

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Paul Daniel leads a lively performance, and reappears in two of the talking-head introductory films; Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton fills in the opera’s background in the third. The sound balance, in movie style, brings the voices into the foreground, sometimes leaving the poor City of London Sinfonia in the dim distance, but overall this production does one of Bernstein’s lesser-known works proud. Matthew Rye