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A Quiet Place

Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth's rarely performed opera about an unhappy family is simply not very good. logo
Louis Otey and Patricia Risley in A Quiet Place
(© Carol Rosegg)
There's sadly no better way to describe A Quiet Place -- the rarely-performed opera which Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth wrote in the early 1980s and which is only now reaching Manhattan in a New York City Opera production -- than not very good. These proceedings -- while well-performed by its cast and ably directed by Chrisopher Alden-- are not only tiresome but, worse, forced and phony.

In creating the opera, Bernstein was marching on his personal -- and misguided -- crusade to write something he considered of genuine importance, since he was seemingly unable to regard the four musicals for which he provided marvelous scores -- including West Side Story and Wonderful Town -- as worthy of his genius.

Bernstein's solution was to create a sequel to his 1952 one-act Trouble in Tahiti (which was eventually incorporated into A Quiet Place as a lengthy flashback sequence). Here, Dinah (Patricia Risley) has just died in an automobile accident but is haunting the funeral-home premises as hubby Sam (Louis Otey), homosexual son Junior (Joshua Hopkins, making a sensational debut), and daughter Dede (Sara Jakubiak) and her husband Francois (Dominic Armstrong) -- who is also Junior's lover -- gather for the service. The following day, they indulge in a game of tag. You heard right: tag.

When it comes to depicting dysfunctional families, there are few more addled clans than the one presented here. Sam and Dinah were doing poorly enough in the troubled Tahiti days when he was seeking more than secretarial duties from his secretary and she was getting sloshed at bad movies after confiding her misgivings to an expensive shrink. But now Sam -- who learns how deeply unhappy Dinah was when reading her diaries -- and Junior are at sword's point, while Dede and Francois can't seem to get it together either. Indeed, the four of them behave shockingly in front of the many blank-faced funeral-service guests and continue bickering until they reach a sort of reconciliation.

There are passages in A Quiet Place that in their melodic dissonance measure up to, and echo, Bernstein at his finest. Listen to the first-act postlude and for the pre-finale aria Junior sings that makes a father wake up to a son's love. And one of the best parts of the Trouble in Tahiti section is the deliberately jazz-influenced opening, "Doa-Daa-Day-Day," which gleefully mocks white-picket-fence America.

Conversely, the prime example of how Bernstein fell short is with the garden imagery that recurs throughout the opera, but never comes close to attaining the emotional power of "Make Your Garden Grow," which brings Bernstein's Candide to an unforgettably affecting close.

Simply put, this Place is not worth the time it takes to visit it.

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