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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Opera Review: Strong Singers Make Noise in A Quiet Place

The first New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein's final opera A Quiet Place features strong performances in a deeply problematic work.
Ghost busting: Patricia Risley haunts Louis Otey in A Quiet Place
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2010 New York City Opera
This three-act opera originated as a sequel to Bernstein's  1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti, a one-act drama depicting the life of a typical American family. A Quiet Place checks in on the same family three decades later, following the death of Dinah, its matriarch, in a car crash.

The family consists of the widowed Sam, (Louis Otey) his troubled kids Junior (Joshua Hopkins) and Dede, (Sara Jakublak) and Dede's French-Canadian husband François, (Dominic Armstrong) who happens to be Junior's lover and caretaker. The libretto, written by Stephen Wadsworth, also incorporates much of the Tahiti material in the second act. All this makes for a heavy, sometimes turgid story. The two  flashbacks contribute to the opera's general incoherence.

Sara Jakubiak has a high-lying soprano, and her "Good Morning" monologue at the start of Act III was a show highlight. Patricia Risley shines in the Tahiti act, where she has some wonderful vintage Bernstein music to sing. Otherwise, she spends most of the outer acts prowling the stage as a ghost in high heels and slacks. Mention must also be made of mezzo Victoria Livengood in the smaller role of Mrs. Doc. Her angry drunk act is the best thing about the funeral that opens this opera.

City Opera mainstay Louis Otey is right for the role of Sam, bringing neurosis and paternal comfort in equal parts. But it is Joshua Hopkins, as the OCD-afflicted son Junior, who steals the show. Although his couch-jumping psychotic freakout in the second act recalls Tom Cruise, this is otherwise an intelligent performance by a fine singing actor.

Bernstein is still Bernstein, and he makes an heroic effort to salvage his subject matter. Once past the opening "car crash" chords, the opera provides surprisingly smooth sailing, all the way to the Tahiti material. At that point, the younger, brash Lenny take over the writing duties, with a couple of great arias and "Island Magic", a funny Broadway pastiche that takes gratuitous shots at South Pacific. The final act (when the family's conflicts are resolved in a glowering, then glowing ensemble) is among his finest writing for the stage.

A final note on the sensible production design by Christopher Alden, who did last year's Don Giovanni at City Opera, also set in a funeral home. It would be wonderful to see this talented designer work on a piece that does not involve funeral homes or coffins. Unless of course the company is planning to put the HBO series Six Feet Under on stage for next year?

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