Friday, November 19th, 2010

Last Chance To See Bernstein's Messy-Great Opera: 'A Quiet Place' Closes Sunday

I would up being pretty busy at work this last month, or I would have written a full-length Difficult Listening Hour about the current production of Leonard Bernstein's opera A Quiet Place—a work that is at times brilliant, and is still sort of dizzyingly entrancing even when it is busy being uneven. The story might make you go "blah," as it's a jaundiced tale of suburbia's morally cramped way—a Revolutionary Road/"Mad Men" arc perceived through the late-alcoholic haze of some gnarly-proof, atonal music that's speckled with odd bitters of jazz. But do not let your standard-issue requirements for novelty turn you away, here. There is not a better way to spend $12 (standing room) or $25 (fourth ring) in NYC this Sunday at 1:30 pm.

The musical imagination at work in Bernstein's final stage score is undeniable. Occasionally, a pop-like tune by the Bernstein-you-know breaks out—though it's as likely to accompany a striptease performed by a young, schizophrenic gay man (and for the benefit of his father, while at the funeral of the mother/wife) as anything so neat and thematically tidy as Jets/Sharks. The politics of the piece are strained, to be sure; everyone's got an afternoon-talk show mania on their minds. But tired as any one strand of the plot may seem, the overall jumble carries a chaotic jolt of the distinct. And, after the burlesquery of the son's funereal striptease settles down into a haunting, Messiaen-like flicker of notes, you'll think: goodness, I'll never see anything like this again. And Sunday—quite honestly—is your last chance. This problematic piece has never been staged in Lenny-loving NYC before, and likely will not be staged again for some time. This production is also uniquely good, since the scrappy City Opera is again benefiting from Christopher Alden's morally engaged direction. (His narrative framing of the opera's song-for-winners, "There's A Law," conjures a Brecht-Weill style of humor that's laced with cunning cruelty.)

But so now here we are: Sunday's matinee performance at City Opera is the last one in this run, and I just couldn't let that pass without comment. Awl pal Zachary Woolfe called this production "one of those strange evenings that's disappointing but unmissable"—which I think is mostly right, except for the proviso that it's disappointing only if you go in expecting every work to box with the classics. An athletic failure can be a vitalizing thing. Awl pal Alex Ross, in this week's New Yorker, says "the production makes you squirm while you are in the house but lingers in the mind for days." Since Ross's review came out, the cheap $12 seats have sold out. But $25 tickets remain. And I'll be buying one, because I want to see this thing again before it's gone.

Seth Colter Walls really has been busy at work.

10 Comments / Post A Comment

macartney (#1,889)

I'm upset that no one has yet commented upon this post. I didn't like the show (but, then again, I'm not on Team Opera), but I wholeheartedly co-sign this:

And, after the burlesquery of the son's funereal striptease settles down into a haunting, Messiaen-like flicker of notes, you'll think: goodness, I'll never see anything like this again.

That Act One postlude after the striptease was my favorite moment of the show, handsdown. Opera-hate aside, I'm super confused about the piece and would have liked a greater discussion of the show in this post–I think it deserved that–but do greatly appreciate that it got even this.

Thanks, Seth.

You're welcome! And hey: we can talk about the piece in greater depth over the weekend in this thread. It's just that–as I was closing up shop at my day-job yesterday afternoon–I realized that I had about 15 minutes to whip up a post for Choire so that people would know about the final performance.

I think both Woolfe and Ross get at some of the essential points regarding this strange work (though I also have different ideas/critiques). And your mini-essay about the postlude is really great, and people should absolutely click through to read it. If anyone else is going on Sunday, feel free to chime in with questions on this thread. (Or maybe it'll just be the two of us, Macartney.)

macartney (#1,889)

I look forward to hearing your additional thoughts after the show today, Seth. I would be there if I were able. Although I'm not a fan of opera generally, and particularly didn't really like this show, what Ross wrote about it haunting you several days afterwards is very true.

I think there's a lot of opera/musical tension in it. One can definitely hear Bernstein's many musical interests and passions fighting with each other, sometimes working with each other. There's West Side Story-like poppy movements, there's jazz-like conversations and dances between various instruments, alongside the other opera stuff. I felt like Bernstein, in trying to write an official American Opera, ran into the problem that the official American Opera is already around: the musical. I'm interested in what you hear between the several styles he plays with.

The director rightly got praised almost everywhere. And Alden deserves that praise, I think. I particularly enjoyed how he turned the chorus into zombie-like creatures, from their mass movements turning and facing the audience in the funeral parlor, to stomping towards the characters and orchestra chairs-in-hand, to slumping against the side walls like ravaged beasts (now full?) in the third Act. (One, of the many, downsides to the cheap fourth ring seats is that in the first two acts, much of this action is hidden by the set design.) But the juxtaposition to the main characters' emotional story-line played out in not a chorus of gossipy townspeople, but in zombie-like we-want-to-eat-your-lifeblood has stayed with me.

FInally, it bums me out that while we won't likely be seeing A Quiet Place for a long time, we most surely will still encounter Trouble in Tahiti, the most famous part of the opera. It for many reasons rubs me the wrong way. But Alden's execution in having the three kids sing the trio, slumped on the couch was brilliant, adding in new dynamic layers and also, I think, connecting the piece to our generation, whose parents' lives had so much promise, while ours slump along on the couch, in front of various screens, etc, etc.

Please do share your additional thoughts after the show today! I promise to check back in sooner this time.

MatthewGallaway (#1,239)

I sadly won't be able to make the show, but look forward to reading any and all analysis and commentary!

Charlie (#4,250)

In. Wouldn't say I'm on Team Opera, but I'm curious.

OK, here are some day-of deets for the eight of y'all who might be interested. There seem to be a couple dozen $12 seats available at the back of "fourth ring." Also, lots of $25 seats in the same section. You can probably just walk up to the City Opera box office, starting at 11:30am, and snag something cheap (w/no online service fee).

However–Lincoln Center also puts pricier, unsold tix from its various houses on discount, same-day. That happens at the David Rubenstein Atrium, on Broadway btwn 62nd and 63rd (west side of Bway). No idea what the price points will be here, but I'm gonna try it out at noon.

macartney (#1,889)

I'm also curious as the the price-points of the day-of discount tickets.

OK, so! I plan to write more about this production in a year-in-summation-type post. But regarding price points: the Lincoln Center Atrium was selling $130 seats (orchestra, I guess) for $65 on the day of the final performance. That was more than I wanted to spend, so I walked over to the City Opera box office and bought a couple $12 tix at the back of Fourth Ring.

macartney (#1,889)

Thanks for the answer, Seth! Looking forward to your upcoming post.

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