Composer Leonard Bernstein’s works for stage and concert hall, including “West Side Story” and “Candide,” are continually performed worldwide, which makes it remarkable that his one full-scale opera, the 1983 “A Quiet Place,” has only now made its Gotham debut courtesy of New York City Opera. Bernstein fans won’t be disappointed with this well-produced “Quiet Place,” although NYCO subscribers might not last through the second intermission of the overlong evening.
To say that “A Quiet Place” is unusual is an understatement, but that is not the problem. Rather, it is eccentrically and unevenly written, with the exuberantly tuneful forty-minutes worth of Bernstein’s 1952 one-act “Trouble in Tahiti” (told in flashback in the second act) smothered by two hours of 1980s soap opera-ish psychodrama.
Back before “West Side,” Bernstein wrote the well-received chamber opera “Tahiti,” about the vicious relationship of a contemporary middle class couple (patterned on the composer’s parents), set against the utopian suburban existence presented by a trio singing to brightly jazzy radio-commercial type music. In 1983, Bernstein — in the midst of a long creative decline — came up with the idea of writing a formal opera which would incorporate “Tahiti,” showing the married couple thirty years later.
“A Quiet Place” starts with the funeral of the wife, and as it turns out, the unseen ten-year-old of the original became a gay, incestuous, mentally unstable misfit who starts things off with a striptease at his mother’s funeral.
The piece premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1983; was drastically overhauled for 1984 productions at the Kennedy Center and La Scala; and all but disappeared after a 1986 hearing (conducted by the composer) in Vienna.
City Opera general manager and artistic director George Steel worked as an assistant to Bernstein on the 1984 version, which helps explain this new production. Conductor Jayce Ogren has the music (and the forty-eight singers) well in hand, although there is only so much one can do with a decidedly strange score that mixes the 1952 material with what at places sounds like a parody of the stormy Bernstein style.
The two female leads come across best, Patricia Risley (who as the wife Dinah sings “Trouble in Tahiti” and otherwise wanders through the proceedings in ghostly fashion) and Sara Jakubiak (as daughter Dede and part of the Jazz Trio). Joshua Hopkins also does well with the difficult role of the son Junior. Christopher Feigum sings the young Sam, of “Trouble in Tahiti,” but Louis Otey can’t do much with the material provided for the elder Sam.