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Dispatch from Manhattan: Bernstein's opera 'A Quiet Place' makes its NY debut [updated]

October 28, 2010 |  9:49 am

QuietPlace0018
2010 is not the Leonard Bernstein centennial — that’s still eight years away — but you might think it was given how much the American conductor-composer’s music is being played this year.  Much of this has been because of Gustavo Dudamel, who’s been playing Bernstein all over the country (on tour with the L.A. Phil and most recently at the Hollywood Bowl), but this fall, New York City Opera is presenting a mini-tribute to the maestro Manhattan-ites still affectionately refer to as “Lenny.”

It started on Saturday with a late-night recital leading to the main event Wednesday night: the New York premiere of Bernstein’s final opera, “A Quiet Place.”  (NYCO’s mini-retrospective concludes next weekend with two concerts featuring a tasting menu of Bernstein excerpts and songs.)

“A Quiet Place” premiered to scathing reviews in Houston 27 years ago (the first paragraph of the New York Times review reads: “calling it a pretentious failure is putting it kindly”), and despite subsequent revisions (and a DG recording in 1986) the opera had never before been staged in the city that both made Bernstein famous and was his home for so many years.

After the first act Wednesday night, it was easy to understand why.  “Grief is a kind of music,” one of the characters sings in the first scene, which takes place in a suburban funeral parlor. 

“A Quiet Place” is about a family dealing with the death of a mother, but this scenario is neither dramatized nor scored in a way to make it captivating.  Characters kibbutz, singing awkward vocal lines as the orchestra (conducted by Jayce Ogren) crashes its way through an epic, atonal score that sounds completely inappropriate for the banal setting. 

Bernstein “A Quiet Place” debuted five years before John Adams' “Nixon in China” appeared on the same Houston stage — but in contrast to the way Adams’ score found new ways to set American English to music, Bernstein’s seems stuck in the past, forcing the contemporary vernacular into an older, stuffy European form.

After the Houston disaster, Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth inserted right in the middle of “A Quiet Place” the composer’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” as a flashback (originally it was performed as the first part of a double bill with “Tahiti,” because it shares many of the same characters). Musically, this transition is jarring — the sonic equivalent of putting one of Goya’s tapestry cartoons in between two of his dark, late paintings and calling it a triptych (or like splicing Woody Allen’s “Bananas” into the middle of his “Crimes and Misdemeanors”) — but it does allow Act 2 to rescue the evening.

Much of this is because of director Christopher Alden’s sleek, stylish staging and to be fair, Wadsworth and Bernstein’s revisions; but it’s also because of the simple fact that the jazzy “Trouble in Tahiti” has enduring melodies. The short 1952 opera is a fascinating precursor to “Revolutionary Road,” “Mad Men” and most of all the musical “Company” in its exploration of midcentury middle-class morals.

Alas, Act 3 of “A Quiet Place” returns to the musical idiom of Bernstein’s late atonalism, and while less grating to the ear, the drama — like in Act 1 — is inert and the psychology and sentiment is both overblown and underwhelming.

As a work of curatorial preservation (“embalming” also does come to mind), Wadsworth and Alden (not to mention City Opera) deserve credit for making “A Quiet Place” as presentable as possible.  Bernstein’s opera is certainly interesting to study for those interested in how the plot reflects aspects of his own life (the death of a wife, affluent ennui, homosexuality) and how the score is a rejection of the ear-grabbing (and commercially successful) music of his younger composing days — not just “Trouble in Tahiti” but pop operettas like “West Side Story” and “Candide.”

Unlike NYCO’s gala opening last year, Wednesday’s opening night featured almost no bold-faced names — and there were lots of seats empty throughout the Koch Theatre.  Bernstein’s final opera had to come to New York at some point, but this revival is unlikely to truly revive much outside interest in this funereal piece. 

Of course, Dudamel’s love for “Lenny” will no doubt result in much more Bernstein in seasons to come (in January, the Dude conducts Bernstein’s Symphony #1at Disney Hall), but while you might hear the melodies of “Trouble in Tahiti” on a future program, don’t expect him to bring the music of “A Quiet Place” any time soon. 

— James C. Taylor

[Updated: An earlier version of this story said that Dudamel would be conducting Bernstein's Symphony No. 7 at Disney Hall in January. He will conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.]

Photo: The chorus of "A Quiet Place." Credit: © Carol Rosegg.

Photo: Undated photo of Bernstein. Credit: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images.

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