Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” earns loud applause in Curtis Opera Theatre performance

Wed Mar 14, 2018 at 11:28 am
Lyric Opera presented a tribute to Leonard Bernstein Saturday night.

Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” was performed by Curtis Opera Theatre Tuesday night at the Kaye Playhouse.

There were a few early exits, but Leonard Bernstein’s star-crossed opera A Quiet Place seemed to find acceptance at last Tuesday night in a concert performance by the Curtis Opera Theatre at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse.

The performance was the New York premiere of a recent revision of the opera by Garth Edwin Sunderland, commissioned by the Bernstein estate, which aimed to restore the outlines of the original version premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in 1983. Negative, some would say uncomprehending, reviews of this sequel to Bernstein’s earlier Trouble in Tahiti prompted the composer to revise it, incorporating the earlier opera as flashbacks. 

Although it got better reviews, this hybrid version didn’t satisfy Bernstein, who talked of a new, improved A Quiet Place without the interpolations, but never got around to producing one before his death in 1990.

According to Peter Burwasser’s note in Tuesday’s program, the Sunderland version restored material that was cut when the composer revised. The instrumentation was reduced to chamber-orchestra size, presumably making the piece more practical for the kind of small opera companies that are presently springing up.

On Tuesday, the superb playing of members of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra did arranger Sunderland proud. Under the direction of Corrado Rovaris, the student ensemble from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music followed Bernstein’s eclectic imagination wherever it went–scrappy as Threepenny Opera one moment and silky as a ‘40s dance band the next.

Although this late Bernstein score was highly volatile and often atonal, the old Broadway and cinema magic still glittered under the surface as the master of musical mis-en-scène reflected his characters’ every passing mood and thought. Playful, angry, sensual, fearful, ironic—Bernstein wrote it, and the Curtis players evoked it, in Technicolor.

And so, in the main, did a fine cast of a dozen or so singers, mostly current or recent Curtis students. The action of A Quiet Place begins 30 years after that of Trouble in Tahiti, at the funeral of one of the earlier opera’s two onstage characters, the wife Dinah. After the funeral guests disperse, the action narrows down to a quartet of characters: the surviving dad Sam, his adult son and daughter Junior and Dede, and François, Dede’s husband (and Junior’s former boyfriend). While Tahiti satirized suburban anomie in general, Quiet probes individual emotions and family dynamics.

With such material–and with Bernstein’s music and Stephen Wadsworth’s libretto styled in conversational, often profane American English–the singers’ personal charisma and communication skills are key. Soprano Ashley Milanese showed plenty of both as Dede, putting an emotional charge under her part’s challenging leaps and ultra-pianissimo high notes.

Dennis Chmelensky brought a potent, edgy baritone to the emotionally unstable role of Junior, provoking and romancing the other characters in equal measure. 

Jean-Michel Richer’s full-bodied lyric tenor suited the Canadian “regular guy” François, the outsider drawn into the intense emotions of this family unit.

Tyler Zimmerman sang Sam in a solid, fatherly bass-baritone, conveying more of the character’s outward gravitas than his inner conflicts—although, to be fair, Bernstein and Wadsworth often gave him the daunting task of singing rage and self-doubt at the same time. (Thank goodness for parentheses in the supertitles.)

In this demi-semi-staging of what was originally a fully staged production, the orchestra was upstage, and a row of chairs across the front of the stage served first for the funeral scene, then as a two-dimensional performing space in which the remaining foursome could move a little, but mostly sang sitting down. The singers managed their intricate parts, meshing well with the orchestra and each other, despite being unable to see conductor Rovaris behind them.

For those who knew even a little about Bernstein’s life and music, this score was studded with in-jokes, such as François quoting a bit of Candide with altered lyrics (“What a day, what a day for a café au lait.”). A scene of the characters remembering carefree childhood games was accompanied by a snatch of the violin concerto by Mendelssohn, a composer who, like Junior in the opera and Bernstein himself, had a close relationship with his sister.

If it’s possible to be relentlessly ambiguous, that would describe the end of this family drama’s 100-minute, no-intermission span, in which the characters bravely embrace life and the family ideal, have one last squabble, and end up warily eyeing each other as the music wafts away, unresolved.

Left hanging by the ending, the audience still managed healthy applause for the excellent performance, and perhaps even for the work itself–this self-indulgent, sometimes exasperating, often brilliant emanation of one of music’s most recognizable personalities.

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