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Leonard Bernstein's 'A Quiet Place': What did the critics think?

November 1, 2010 |  1:00 pm

Quiet

Leonard Bernstein never got to see his opera "A Quiet Place" performed in New York. Maybe that was for the best, considering some of the reviews for New York City Opera's new and eagerly anticipated production.

Few operas come with as much backstory as "A Quiet Place." Bernstein premiered the work, which is a sequel to his "Trouble in Tahiti," at the Houston Grand Opera in 1983 to overwhelmingly negative reviews. The composer and librettist Stephen Wadsworth subsequently revised the opera, but it has never before seen a production in New York, although it has been produced at regional and overseas companies.

Director Christopher Alden's staging for New York City Opera features a principal cast of 12 singers. The opera picks up a few decades later than "Tahiti" at the funeral of the character Dinah. Her widowed husband, Sam, attempts a rapprochement with his gay son Junior and his daughter Dede. The current version of "A Quiet Place" features a flashback to "Tahiti" during the second act.

Critical reaction to the production has been less than overwhelming, with a few critics expressing outright disappointment.

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times called the production "vibrant" and the cast "terrific." But the critic faulted the opera's dramatic pacing, writing that "there are some captivating arias and monologues in this work, but Bernstein milks them for too long."

Los Angeles Times contributing writer James C. Taylor wrote that the opera 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 [kibitz], 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."

Former L.A. Times music critic Martin Bernheimer wrote in the Financial Times that Bernstein's 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. ... The jumble wants to be profound. After nearly 3½ hours it seems merely tedious."

James Jorden of the New York Post found the production to be a "lumbering, three-hour melodrama." The critic wrote that Bernstein's score "seems here to be clambering at profundity, succeeding only in a pair of yearning orchestral interludes in the first and last acts." 

The Wall Street Journal's Heidi Waleson offered a rare rave, writing that despite the opera's rocky production history, the work "feels like one brilliantly composed piece." The reviewer wrote that  "New York City Opera has done a great service for the opera world and, 20 years after his death, for Leonard Bernstein, who always longed to be remembered as a composer of 'serious' music. 'A Quiet Place' proves that he was one."

-- David Ng

Photo: Louis Otey and Patricia Risley in a scene from NYCO's production of "A Quiet Place" by Leonard Bernstein. Credit: Carol Rosegg / via Associated Press

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