There was a moment on entering Lost and Found’s production of Bernstein’s Trouble and Tahiti when I hesitated. I was walking through a stranger’s house and instinctively turned to greet Dinah in the kitchen preparing breakfast. Then I remembered this was just a set and hurried past a boy at the kitchen table to take my seat in the patio.
This is the magic of Perth opera company Lost and Found: they present opera so physically and emotionally close to the audience that the work takes on an (often uncomfortable) personal resonance. Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess likes to plumb the psychological depths of opera and so Bernstein’s exploration of a loveless marriage is set in a suburban home in Perth’s affluent western suburbs where the lure of white goods and ‘silver screens’ is just as potent as it was in 1951.
Sam and Dinah have a picture perfect life but despite their possessions and accomplishments they are trapped in a dysfunctional marriage. From my seat on the patio I could see wilted roses in a vase, Junior (Rory McLaughlin) immersed in headphones and a screen and Dinah in the kitchen, the squeak of her sneakers on the polished floorboards the only noise in the otherwise deafening silence.
|Helen Sherman (Dinah) with Christopher Tonkin (Sam) in the background. All photos c Kristoffer Myhre|
Tyler Hill’s set design included stacks of removalist boxes – a catalogue of unused possessions and also an innovative backdrop for the vocal trio (Bernstein’s “Greek chorus born of the radio commercial”) who functioned as removalists. Kieran Lynch, Curtis Novacsek and Rachel Singer were dressed as tradies and crooned close harmonies, jazz rhythms and sugar-coated lyrics with velveteen smoothness while ticking off items required to live the American dream: ‘Sheridan sofa, Chippendale chair, bone chinaware, real solid silver’.
The entire 45 minute opera unfolded in the living room which converted to Sam’s office, the street and a cinema. Pianist Christopher van Tuinen accompanied from the adjoining lounge, his clean technique and tender phrasing creating subtle background atmosphere. The audience sat in raked seating in the patio with the double doors to the starkly lit home (lighting by Devon Lovelady) creating a cinema screen of sorts.
One of Lost and Found’s strengths has been its casting of local world class singers. This year the company has toured a production to Victoria (and Paris in 2018) and seems to be spreading its wings, which perhaps explains the use of internationally-based singers for this show. It is disappointing for the local talent but there was no argument that Sam and Dinah were magnificently cast.
Sam was sung by Australian baritone Christopher Tonkin who is resident principal with Hannover Staatsoper and Dinah by mezzo soprano Helen Sherman who splits her time between the UK and east-coast Australia. Tonkin’s creamy baritone and sweet falsetto were a treat to listen to in close proximity while his chiselled features and contemptuous body language gave an extra arrogance to ‘There’s a Law’, sung after winning a hand ball tournament and while leaning against the patio door dressed in nothing but stars and stripes swimmers.
|Tonkin (Sam) singing There’s a Law|
Sherman’s secure delivery, crisp diction and fast vibrato could also melt into moments of tearful fragility. Her Island Magic tribute to the Pacific islands was sensational, sung cabaret-style in a camilla dress complete with a bubbling volcano (courtesy of a champagne bottle and some aspirin) around which she sashayed with riotous extravagance.
It was unclear whether Sam and Dinah were moving into or out of their house; rather they seemed to be waiting in between. The coldness of their home with its stark lighting and boxed possessions was a powerful metaphor of the uncertainty of their relationship. The kernel of the opera thus became the ‘talk’ Sam initiated in the final scene, where any hope of resolution was quickly avoided by his suggestion they go to the movies. Sam’s silver screen substitution for intimacy couldn’t be clearer to the audience watching with voyeuristic fascination from our cinema seats on the patio.
Trouble in Tahiti runs until May 20th. Tickets are sold out.