Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Quiet Place

The New York City Opera just finished up a run of Leonard Bernstein's early-1980s opera "A Quiet Place," an ill-starred drama never hitched to the repertoire, and in fact being performed in New York for the first time. Sunday was the last performance and I went with Mandy and Tabitha. Tabitha works for an engineering firm, and she pointed out a couple of features of Lincoln Center's recent renovation that she worked on. Maddie came for an Indian buffet lunch beforehand (a high-quality Indian buffet being one of the only, possibly the only, viably priced restaurant option within spitting distance of Lincoln Center), but she had to fly off to Atlanta and back thereafter.

"A Quiet Place" is a challenging opera, not ultimately successful in my mind, but it's worth seeing and well worth the revival. Bernstein extended it as a kind of sequel from his downcast but still effervescent early-1950s one-act "Trouble in Tahiti," which followed a day in the life of an unhappy suburban couple ostensibly living the American dream. (Nate wrote about it earlier this year. There were no zombies in "A Quiet Place.") The earlier opera is entirely embedded as a flashback into the second of three acts. The whole is a ponderous suburban drama, striving to be complex and refusing to provide a real resolution at the end.

"Trouble in Tahiti" is a great little opera: admirably direct, modestly scaled, emotionally straightforward, and laced with a perfectly pitched, ironically perky jazzy spirit. The balance of "A Quiet Place" is not that. The dominant musical mode is a probing, rather dissonant lyricism. There's a heaviness to the music, and even though you frequently hear Bernstein's old get-up-and-go, it's freighted with an extra degree of discord. There are certainly some moving high points, particularly a couple of darkly meditative orchestral interludes.

Bernstein and his librettist, Stephen Wadsworth, pull the unhappy '50s suburban couple of "Trouble" into a decaying family twilight, with the husband (Sam) sullen after the drunk-driving death of the wife (Dinah). The grown kids, Junior and Dede, are nearly estranged from Sam but back for the funeral. Ah yes, and Junior is homosexual and prone to psychotic episodes, so Dede has married his French-Canadian lover Francois so they can live under the same roof and take care of him.

You get the sense that Bernstein and Wadsworth wanted to confront their audience with brutally uncomfortable truth. The root problem is that the operational idea of truth here is some kind of an overcooked latter-day psychoanalysis. So that's when you have Junior getting up on a table in front of mom's coffin in the funeral parlor and dancing a mocking burlesque striptease for dad. (Fortunately the stripping doesn't go further than his overcoat.) In Act II he goes on, even less pleasantly, to accost Francois with delusional memories of being twelve and raping his then-baby sister. Bernstein sets both scenes to jaunty ironic jazz, once again, but it's just too caustic for the music to seem at all appropriate here.

If you can set aside those ten minutes out of the three hours, although I'm not sure I can, then you've got a plot you can relate to somewhat better. Junior delivers an emotionally exposed expression of pain to his father in the closing minutes, which is moving but not really cathartic enough to tie up the opera.

Up in the fourth ring there were some on-and-off problems with voices carrying, particularly in the "Trouble in Tahiti" portions. Which is a shame for "What a Movie!", its delightful shimmering centerpiece. (YouTube has the scene from a relatively recent BBC production of the show.) The performances otherwise seemed great. I don't have anything smart to say about the staging, but it seemed apt to me.

The production was largely the child of the NYCO's director, George Steel, who took over the company a couple years ago in the midst of a profound finance/leadership shitstorm. I'm not really aware of the current state of the City Opera, or how much they're still weathering the same; but "A Quiet Place," I think, is its first major gambit since then, and I do hope they achieve some stability. Productions like this add so much to the classical life of the city.


Blogger nate said...

Nice review; "overcooked" sounds like the right word for it. It makes me think of Bernstein's "Mass", which is way overwrought in a lot of places in its own particular way -- in the service of giving voice to Bernstein's perception of an entire cultural moment, rather than pushing through to an allegedly grim psychosexual reality. He seems not to trust subtlety and understatement to carry his big ideas, either in music or in drama, although he's very capable of it in both cases... Next to those two (three) works, "West Side Story"'s sometimes heady dramatics seem to be of a piece, but much more successful; maybe they work particularly well for Shakespearean tragedy.

11/24/2010 3:19 PM  

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