By: Jun. 29, 2019
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Review: A DINNER ENGAGEMENT/TROUBLE IN TAHITI, Royal College Of Music Fittingly, Stephen Unwin's productions of Lennox Berkeley's A Dinner Engagement and Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti feature amalgams of Art Deco grid backdrops that symbolise the rigid, artificially luminous world of their characters.

Set respectively in the pompous and supercilious habitats of 1950s upper-middle-class London and suburban America, both operas treat their protagonists with a hybrid of pathos and parody, satire and sorrow.

Accentuating the practical hopelessness of the newly (trivially) destitute Earl and Countess of Dunmow in A Dinner Engagement, Urwin uses tastefully exaggerated comedic movements to present the pair struggling to prepare stuffed tomatoes. Both are aflutter as they ready their marriageable daughter for her first meeting with Prince Phillipe: French but originating from the fictional European country of Monteblanco.

Adhering unreservedly to the choreography and refined gesticulation of this comedy of manners, students of the RCM embellish their characters with vocal and physical details, painting their personages with a gamut of both thick and tiny oil and watercolour brushstrokes.

Baritone Edward Jowle makes an indelible stamp on the simultaneously amusing and pitiable Earl of Dunmow, sustaining lengthy crescendi and a thick vibrato to highlight his character's irrepressible smugness. Every enunciation of crisp consonants and stretched-out vowels, together with the pauses Jowle elects to lengthen or suspend, help us envisage the sense of entitlement that has girded the Earl since his birth: his recollection of having been "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Monteblanco" encompasses both arrogance and affecting nostalgia.

The incarnation of the now-useless maid Mrs. Kneebone is another example of well-scrutinised study in drama and accurate vocalisation. Laura Hocking lends her both the dropped 't's and 'h's of a cockney young woman and Eliza Doolittle's unmistakable vowels. Effervescent in her ecstasy as she awaits the imminent arrival of the Prince, Hocking unleashes exquisitely well-sustained top notes, whose palpability seems indefatigable. Always attentive to reactions of the other characters, Hocking is immersed in her role to a magnetic extent.

Embodying the dampened spirit of a disadvantaged Countess, Katy Thomson employs ample use of vibrato to mould her soprano with the agitation of a middle-aged and vexed woman. Scaling both rapid staccato passages of neurosis and tender moments, such as the serene diminuendo of "My love awaits the moonlight", with ease, Thomson switches from one emotional condition to another with vocal aplomb.

Jessica Cale's Susan - the nubile daughter the poor aristocratic couple longs to dispense with via marriage - is infectiously both high-spirited and roiled. Her voice a limpid and malleable soprano pouring forth in a sparkling flow, Cale lends her character rebellious contention in such demands as "How soignée am I?", as well as delectable tender diminuendi as she and Phillipe finally prepare to spend time in the moonlight.

The prince himself is likewise technically well-equipped; Guy Elliott offers humorous renditions of French-accented vowels and curiosity mixed with absent-mindedness in his interpretation of the privileged aristocrat. Occasionally, nonetheless, his efforts become visible and tension hampers select high notes.

Dealt an old-fashioned Broadway treatment, Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti is directed with scrupulous attention paid to 1950s theatre, fashion, architecture and MGM musicals. Opening with jazz scat singing by a coat-and-tails-attired trio - the insuperably polished team of Ffion Edwards, Samuel Jenkins and Will Diggle - the sombre opera unfolds with an almost eerie reflection of the ready-made, upper-middle-class American family still in full bloom today.

The duplicitous calm the trio's singing lends descriptions of Scarsdale and Beverly Hills, stressing in perfect harmony all the same syllables once accented by barbershop quartets, is so superbly executed both in jazz hands-riddled choreography and vocal splendour that it surely discommodes most longtime-married, well-off couplings in the audience.

Taking centre stage, the pairing of James Atkinson as Sam and Holly-Marie Bingham as Dinah swiftly immerse us into the routine dread of a typical couple who struggle to keep up appearances; they suffer from the affliction of apathy. On paper, it's a satire; onstage, the two unravel laments, nostalgia and fantasies with such precision that one struggles not to mourn the plight they have selected.

Atkinson's Sam - with the rumble of a coarse, authoritative, baritone voice - is infallibly self-regarding and despairing at once. He coaxes the audience's sympathy even when insisting, with ham-handed physicality, that his secretary "forget" the advances he made to her. Riled by torpor in the office, despite serial successes, his false smiles invariably wrest pity. Exceptional selection is applied to his use of growling vibrato as he sings of how "Men are created unequal", reminding himself in the shower that he is "a winner" by varnishing words with excessive panache.

Languishing in self-imposed domestic imprisonment, Bingham's Dinah inspires perhaps even greater compassion. Gifted with a lush mezzo-soprano, Bingham gives both the proud mother aspect of her character credibility with her radiant, vibrato-laden expression of "Junior's the hero!", referring to her son's role in a play, and likewise sustains unparalleled breath control as she dreams of the "Technicolor twaddle" she has watched at the cinema: a movie called Trouble in Tahiti.

The latter is mused upon as Dinah dances an elaborate choreography in high heels with the trio. Considering the performers' training in opera and not musical theatre, it's an enviable feat. Certain excessively forced top notes should be avoided, but Bingham gives the most emotional performance of the troupe.

Under the baton of the RCM's Director of Opera Michael Rosewell, the student orchestra executes a well-punctuated array of both harmonious and zip-zap 20th-century rhythms, though occasionally lacking cohesion. Nevertheless, the tempi and dynamics of the works both emanate enough to make their styles and epochs easily identifiable, with Bernstein's signature motifs especially aglow.

Arranged with unbridled professionalism, the performances of students at the hands of well-known theatre director Stephen Unwin upstage a great number of today's paid interpretations across the international opera stage. In an era when many consumers have abandoned mainstream entertainment in favour of avant-garde theatre, YouTube or podcasts, one wonders whether opera students at the very least should not be heeded more attention.

A Dinner Engagement/Trouble in Tahiti runs at Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music until 1 July

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou


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