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

by Seth Colter Walls

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.