That City Opera is presenting the belated New York City premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place is notable and important as an event. That the work itself, and the production, are so powerfully affecting makes it one of the most memorable and aesthetically satisfying nights at the opera in memory.
A Quiet Place as it exists right now is not a great work, but it is a brilliant work, and the brilliance heavily outweighs the flaws. It’s a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, itself an excellent piece of musical theater, following the main characters Sam and Dinah (Patricia Risley, dynamic but underpowered at times) into the future (present). The initial premiere was met with such great unkindness that Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth reworked the opera, interpolating Tahiti into the second act. The original second act is an unknown quality, but as the piece currently stands the Tahiti music detracts from the overall context. Bernstein’s musical and dramatic vision was, for him, exploratory and experimental but not haphazard. Perhaps it was the combination of long stretches of atonal music coupled with Wadsworth’s excellent but emotionally abrading libretto that turned off the audiences and critics at the debut in 1983, but heard today those parts of the opera are tremendous, superior in depth, power and interest to the Tahiti music, no matter how much that pleases the crowd.
A Quiet Place is about a death in a family, and the immediate aftermath. Nothing, ultimately, is resolved, as nothing can be – closure is a myth. It’s as realistic a subject there is in opera, and the libretto treats it with even more realism, defining the characters as real people, not the usual quasi-heroic figures whom we struggle to find some aspect to identify with. Bernstein furthers this conception brilliantly, with music that explains and enhances the characterizations as well as any opera does. As a composer, he serves the drama completely, giving the characters exactly what they need to express themselves in the moment. This does mean that there is a great deal of atonal music, but it’s misleading to call this an atonal opera. During most of the first act, Bernstein avoids establishing any key, and so avoids a musical and emotional resolution that would ring false for a section that takes place in a funeral parlor and disintegrates into anguish and chaos. Of course the music is unsettled, because the characters are unsettled.
This is not Schoenberg, however (his resolutely atonal Moses und Aaron, for all it’s fame, is unable to musically convey character by its very nature). The characters are not following strict serial procedures; amidst a long vocal line there are substantial, clear tonal stretches. It’s just that there’s no eight bar phrase ending on a perfect cadence. The power of this hits home towards the latter part of the act, when Sam’s son Junior (sung and acted with beauty and power by Joshua Hopkins), makes his entrance. While the other characters are supposedly sane, Junior is schizophrenic, and his music, completely tonal, is extraordinarily affecting and a brilliantly ambiguous emotional contrast – is Junior thinking more clearly than everyone else, overcome with grief? It’s both so full of artifice and so real.
Compared to this, the appearance of Tahiti seems bland and obvious. The older work does not have the same emotional realism or complexity, it’s an unfortunate release valve on the intensity that had been built. The third act returns the opera to its moorings, with the same emotional power and musical skill, but through more tonal means, as the characters seek, fail, and then eke out some small success at emotional reconciliation. The power of the “Good Morning” aria sung by the daughter, Dede (an excellent Sara Jakubiak), as the curtain rises literally like the sun, is both discrete and a display of Bernstein’s mastery of a rich tonal idiom. The core of the story is the emotional conflict between Sam (Louis Otey, also very fine) and Junior, and this comes to the fore as they play tag, confront each other, fight and embrace with as much love as anger. Bernstein and Wadsworth balance all this so well, the quality of the original work is gripping and searing throughout. This is opera as drama in the ultimate sense. A Quiet Place is a rare work that, through the attenuated, artificial means of characters singing their every thought, touches the audience with the immediacy of an intimate conversation with a loved one. A complete triumph for City Opera: top notch, fluid and sensitive playing from the orchestra and conductor Jayce Ogren, excellent physical production from Christopher Alden, who puts the characters in normal settings, a funeral home, a living room, the streets, with just enough psychological complexity to enhance realism with dreams, and superb costumes from Kaye Voyce, who dresses the characters in a disturbing balance of seventies flamboyance and blandness. The run ends November 21, go.
The other domestic drama City Opera is staging this fall is Richard Strauss’ Intermezzo . If juxtaposing the two works does nothing else, it will establish Bernstein as, without any doubt, a serious composer of serious music that belongs in the repertoire. Strauss already has the honor set in stone, although I for one would like to see more doubts expressed about his work. Strauss can write music, lay notes down on the page, I have no doubt about that. But as to what he seems to be expressing, that strikes me as questionable. To be perfectly blunt, I find Strauss a phony.
Intermezzo is a relatively autobiographical work – Strauss wrote the libretto – about a composer, his wife, and a screwball type romantic misunderstanding. The structure is screwball in that it contains both a ridiculous conflict and a deliberate, knowing extension of the conflict, but without any real zaniness or much humor. Perhaps there is humor in the words and music, but Strauss has awful comic timing. The problem is his music. He was an exceedingly skillful composer and enjoyed, perhaps more than anything else, letting us know how skillful he was all the time. His style is busy-ness, constant, almost frenetic activity, music that not only underlines the vocal content but underlines itself. It’s as if he doesn’t trust our responses and has to constantly remind us how we are supposed to feel, like the overdone movies of Paul Thomas Anderson. I seriously question his aesthetic judgement, even in supposed masterpieces like Der Rosenkavalier. Also, although I am not myself in the middle of an angry, loveless marriage and raising neglected children, I can understand and sympathize with what Bernstein is trying to tell me. I find that I cannot, however, sympathize with the domestic foibles of the Viennese bourgeoisie between the wars. This is Strauss’ life, and it’s not interesting to me. So, I find Intermezzo like I find all of his work, a polished, dazzling nothingness.
That being said, I’m alone in this interpretation, and many people love Strauss. They will be pleased by this production, which is literal, straightforward and charming, with the period appeal of an early society talkie. The leads are lively and sing well, Mary Dunleavy dominating the show as the wife, Christine, and Nicholas Pallesen sympathetic as the composer and Strauss stand-in, Robert Storch. George Manahan conducts the orchestra, which sounded a little stretched in the first few scenes but caught their footing eventually and played lustrously. For what it’s worth, this is well-done Strauss.