A BARBER & BERNSTEIN DOUBLE BILL: A Hand of Bridge & Trouble in Tahiti

The Piano, 156 Armagh Street, Christchurch

19/08/2022 - 21/08/2022

Production Details

Directed by Matthew Kereama
Musical Direction by Rachel Fuller

Presented by Toi Toi Opera

Toi Toi Opera is fast establishing a reputation as NZ’s most exciting and innovative pint-sized opera company. Join us in August at The Piano: Centre for Music and the Arts, as we present Leonard Bernstein’s one-act opera TroubleinTahiti (in its 70th Anniversary year), and two works by Samuel Barber – the one-act opera AHandofBridge, and Knoxville:Summerof1915 for solo soprano.

The pieces are musically and dramatically complementary, providing an intimate and moving insight into the lived reality of middle-class American suburban life in the 20th century, and of just how far short it fell for many of the ‘American dream’ that they had been sold. In each instance, the audience is invited to delve underneath a picture-perfect cookie-cutter façade, as the protagonists grapple with their feelings of loneliness, emptiness and isolation, and question the meaningfulness of lives dedicated to the pursuit of ‘more’ and ‘better’.

Sexy, poignant, funny, and oh-so-relatable! This sparkling new production, designed by Christy Lassen, and with sumptuous costuming by Tina Hutchison-Thomas, will transport you back to the Golden Age of the 1950s.

Directed by Matthew Kereama, with Musical Direction by Rachel Fuller, the production stars some of New Zealand’s finest young operatic talent.

Find out more about our wonderful cast, creatives, musicians, and crew here.

A fully-staged production, sung in English, with chamber orchestra.

The Philip Carter Family Concert Hall at The Piano: Centre for Music and the Arts, Ōtautahi Christchurch
Friday 19 August 2022, 7:30 pm
Saturday 20 August 2022, 2:00 pm
Saturday 20 August 2022, 7:30 pm
Sunday 21 August 2022, 2:00 pm
Book Tickets

For wheelchair seating and inquiries, or special seating requirements for patrons with impaired mobility, please email: toitoiopera@gmail.com  

Matilda Wickbom - Dinah (Trouble in Tahiti)
John Bayne - Sam (Trouble in Tahiti)
Emma Gilkison - Soloist (Knoxville) & Trio Soprano (Trouble in Tahiti)
Nigel Withington - Bill (A Hand of Bridge) & Trio Tenor (Trouble in Tahiti) 
Alex Robinson - David (A Hand of Bridge) & Trio Baritone (Trouble in Tahiti)
Katherine Doig - Geraldine (A Hand of Bridge)
Helen Acheson - Sally (A Hand of Bridge)

Matthew Kereama – Director  
Rachel Fuller – Musical Director 
Margot Button – Artistic Director 
Christy Lassen – Production Designer & Properties Manager 
Sheena Baines – Lighting Designer 
Tina Thomas – Head of Costume 
Deirdre Fell – Head of Hair & Makeup 
Danielle Rackham – Stage Manager 
Jeremy Woodside – Répétiteur  
Matthew Oswin – Répétiteur

Orchestral Ensemble
Rachel Fuller – Musical Director & Piano
Matthew Harris – Double Bass
Susan Dollin – Flute
John Robinson – Clarinet
Doug Brush – Percussion & Drums
Jeremy Woodside – Répétiteur 
Matthew Oswin – Répétiteur 

Opera , Theatre ,

1 hr 30 min

Innovative, imaginative and adventurous

Review by Tony Ryan 20th Aug 2022

In February last year, we, the opera stalwarts of Christchurch, headed along to The Great Hall of the Christchurch Arts Centre for the debut production of a new local company – Toi Toi Opera.  Billed as Suor Angelica (Puccini) and Elegies (Britten, Butterworth, Vaughan Williams), it rather surprised us with its innovative, thought-provoking and imaginative approach to opera presentation. With its high production values, along with a well-chosen cast and creative team, it projected a considerable emotional and artistic punch.

In this new double bill those same qualities abound. The concept emerges, not so much as a double bill, but as an integrated and cleverly matched combination of three American pieces in which Toi Toi’s creative team have played as much a part as the composers and librettists. All three works share a domestic intimacy and a degree of commentary, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, on the elusiveness of the American (human?) dream.

Samuel Barber’s 1938 lyric rhapsody Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is one of the great masterpieces of American music and, in Toi Toi’s ingenious realisation and Emma Gilkison’s convincing performance, it proves a logical and effective prologue to the same composer’s ten-minute 1959 opera A Hand of Bridge in which the two couples (Helen Acheson, Nigel Withington, Katherine Doig, Alex Robinson) despairingly and, in the context of theatrical subterfuge, humorously, reveal their supressed dreams and desires as they live out their somewhat routine and unfulfilled lives.

All five singers in this first part of the programme portray their characters with persuasive commitment and vocal distinction. While Katherine Doig stands out for her willingness to communicate a more forthright and characterful projection of both voice and character, the others have a tendency to restrain their projection, perhaps as a way of conveying the characters’ repressed aspirations. In particular, in Knoxville, I would have welcomed a more expressive and opulent expansion of the higher, arching phrases from Emma Gilkison, where she has a tendency to pull back. At times her projection and diction are so restrained that the emotional flow of the music loses a degree of its impact. A slightly more fluid tempo might also highlight the dramatic contrasts of the piece, especially in the transition into the magical episode where the singer describes the family lying on quilts on the grass.

That same restraint is noticeable in the Greek-chorus-like trio commentary in Bernstein’s 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. It’s not just a matter of volume, but of projecting the spirit of the musical and dramatic style of this feature of the score. Bernstein’s writing is full of subtle dynamic swells and falls for this ensemble (Emma Gilkison, Nigel Withington, Alex Robinson), but here everything is subdued and, although it seems to be a deliberate musical decision, it needs just a bit more … well … oomph! But it’s beautifully sung – the blend of the three voices, intonation, stylistic accord, physical vitality and coordination are impressive, and often very entertaining. The final scene where the trio represents the American dream peering in through the living room windows is particularly effective and dramatically compelling.

The two principal singers in this work embrace their roles with total conviction. John Bayne is a suitably self-opinionated Sam, and has the requisite vocal and dramatic skills as well as the ideal physical attributes for the part. When dressed as the corporate businessman, Bayne tends to be a little wooden in his portrayal compared to his more liberated and amusing characterisation in the gym changing room. But he is always convincing in his representation of the husband in an increasingly dysfunctional marriage.

As his wife Dinah, Matilda Wickbom’s singing and acting make her character the more sympathetic partner, although she too is not without flaws. Wickbom’s ‘I was Standing in a Garden’ aria is, for me at least, the highlight of the evening – touchingly and beautifully done. And her contrasting ‘What a Movie’ solo demonstrates an ability to find and communicate the diverse vocal and character facets of the part.

A superb onstage quintet of instrumentalists, led with vitality by musical director Rachel Fuller, supports the stage performances with pizzazz and subtlety as required, although they too, at times, are a little more subdued in their projection than I would have preferred.

Set, lighting and costumes are excellent – appropriate, but with just that inspired element of subtle caricature that highlights the stereotypes represented in the works themselves. Matthew Kereama’s direction ensures that the writers’ intentions are allowed to unfold without any meddlesome intervention, so that the music, acting and overall concept work superbly.

Toi Toi is certainly a company to watch – not only talented and professional, but innovative, imaginative and adventurous in a way that will surely develop a growing following as its reputation spreads.

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