Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” makes a belated, touching New York debut at City Opera

October 29, 2010
By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Sara Jakubiak (Dede), Dominic Armstrong (François), and Joshua Hopkins (Junior) in New York City Opera's production of "A Quiet Place." Photo: Carol Rosegg

The suburban dream and its discontents has been a fertile hunting ground for novelists and filmmakers with works such as Revolutionary Road and American Beauty helping to define how America sees itself.

Opera, too, has something to say on the subject of issues like addiction, sex and the disintegration of the family in Leonard Bernstein’s last great work, A Quiet Place. Incredibly, the opera, premiered in Houston in 1984, has never been performed in Bernstein’s hometown until last night, when New York City Opera opened its season with a production that should return the work to its rightful place in the American canon.

Not that A Quiet Place is without problems. For starters, there’s the fact that the opera consists of two distinct halves written nearly 30 years apart. Bernstein conceived the opera about a dysfunctional suburban family as a sequel to his earlier one-act Trouble in Tahiti, which mixed snappy rhythms and popular song styles with themes of alcoholism, marital trouble and gender wars. A Quiet Place, set to a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth, adds to these death and bereavement, mental illness, homosexuality, and incest – as well as an angular, prickly score that offers few catchy tunes. After the critical flop of the premiere, the two works were merged into a three-act opera that begins with the funeral of Dinah, who died in an alcohol-induced car crash, and then portrays the emotional fallout among her family members, with the Tahiti material incorporated as flashbacks.

No wonder, then, that the score is all over the place with knotty twelve-tone passages abruptly giving way to jaunty dance-hall tunes. In the supermarket of musical styles that was 1980s America, it seems Bernstein went down every aisle. But in its portrayal of a middle-class family – the married couple Dinah and Sam, their grown children Dede and Junior, and Dede’s husband Francois – in which everyone’s talking all the time and nobody listens,  the mercurial score aptly reflects the many layers of pain and irony. Jayce Ogren, making his NYCO debut, conducted with admirable fluidity and verve.

The production is directed by Christopher Alden, who helmed last year’s NYCO production of Don Giovanni, with sets by Andrew Lieberman. The similarities between the sets were startling, especially in Act I, which was set in a funeral parlor with neat rows of chairs and a coffin very much like the one that contained the Commendatore. Interiors were bland and vaguely institutional. The walls were painted pastel pink, so that the cast, with the men clad in dark suits, looked like fondant figures on a wedding cake. In Act III Dinah’s overgrown garden, the metaphor for which the characters all yearn, is represented by a barren space with only a children’s swing set on it. (There was more greenery in the signature “Garden Party” cocktail — gin, Pernod, mint, lime — offered during intermission.)

Then again, the pared-down sets, combined with some beautiful lighting effects by Aaron Black, helped to focus attention on the psychological drama of the story. Under the direction of Alden, the mostly young singers – five of the six principal roles made their NYCO debut — offered fearless portrayals of very complex characters. Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins was the floppy-haired, psychotic Junior who chooses his mother’s funeral to come out of the closet, perform a strip-tease in front of her coffin, and later simulate sex with his sister. Hopkins, who has a lean, sinewy baritone, brought a heart-wrenching sense of vulnerability to the role.

Sara Jakubiak’s youthful, sweet soprano was a good match for the character of Dede who is chatty, neurotic, and defensive, but also a nurturing, forgiving force in the opera. The opening of Act III saw her perched very precariously on top of the swing set, underscoring both her fearlessness and her fragility.

Sam was sung by two baritones, Christopher Feigum as the young husband and Louis Otey as the widower. Otey has a fine dramatic baritone and brought depth to the scenes in which he reads his late wife’s diaries, trying to make a connection across death that eluded him throughout their marriage. His blustering You are late in Act I, infused with the rhythmic verve of West Side Story, elicited the first of several spontaneous bursts of applause. Feigum has a lovely warm upper range but loses some color in the lower notes; both baritones sometimes struggled to make themselves heard over the percussion-heavy orchestration.

Dinah, who appears both in the flashbacks and as a ghost gently stalking her family, was sung by Patricia Risley with clarity and touching warmth. The scene in which she recounts her dream of a quiet, sheltering garden to her analyst was one of the musical highlights of the evening. The bravura aria What a Movie in which she cruelly parodies the kitschy film Trouble in Tahiti was a welcome moment of pure comedy.

Among the supporting roles, Judith Christin made a convincing Susie – one could virtually hear her high blood pressure – and Victoria Livengood as Mrs Doc threatened to steal the show with her acerbic asides delivered in a ringing alto.

Much of the singers’ acting was so convincing that one almost forgot that they were singing.  At times, they weren’t. One of the most touching scenes was that of Sam reading pages from Dinah’s diary to his children in a speaking voice while the ghost of Dinah, crouched in a corner of her garden, sang the same lines. It was a heartbreaking moment, not only because it served as a poignant reminder of what is lost in death, and what remains, but also because it seemed to pit the art of spoken theater against that of opera – and opera, here, belonged to the realm of the dead.

A Quiet Place is playing at New York City Opera through November 21.;  212-870 5570

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