A Quiet Place, New York City Opera, New York

Poor Leonard Bernstein. He wanted so much to be another Gustav Mahler. He ended up being another Leonard Bernstein.

Indecently talented and indecently undisciplined, Bernstein – who died 20 years ago – could do anything. Well, almost anything. He juggled splendid careers as a conductor, pianist, TV personality, author and lecturer. As a composer he was fine and facile when it came to Broadway shows, quasi-operettas and lightweight classical excursions. His more serious pieces, however, tended to be slick, sentimental and superficial.

And so it was with A Quiet Place, his would-be grand opera which has made it to New York, 27 years and several revisions after its unhappy premiere in Houston. Back in 1953, Bernstein had written a wry one-act opera about marital strife called Trouble in Tahiti. The title quoted a bad movie viewed by the heroine, and the score was predicated on pop songs. In A Quiet Place Bernstein cannibalised this innocent creation for an awkward flashback that examines the central couple’s relationship 30 years earlier.

The extended opera, which utilises corny rhymes by Stephen Wadsworth, functions as an ode to dysfunctional family relations. The plot explores equal-opportunity psychosexual tangles with morbid overtones and soapy accents. The score, though cleverly structured, dabbles in wrong-note modernism, jazzy-bluesy indulgences, dancerly diversions, doodle-noodle recitatives, set pieces with applaud-now cadences, splintered parlando and neo-romantic mush– all surrounding the naiveté recycled from Tahiti. The jumble wants to be profound. After nearly 3½ hours it seems merely tedious.

The City Opera mustered a brilliant production, staged with an enlightened fusion of abstraction and realism by Christopher Alden, designed with spare bravado by Andrew Lieberman and conducted with telling conviction by Jayce Ogren. The ensemble of inspired singing-actors included Louis Otey as the ageing hero in mourning, seconded by Christopher Feigum as his younger incarnation, plus Sara Jakubiak, Joshua Hopkins, Patricia Risely and Dominic Armstrong as various exponents of domestic distress.

Everyone exhibited rare skill and dedication. Too bad it had to be lavished on pretentious, portentous claptrap. (opera); (performance)


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