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Re-Inventing Bernstein; Re-Inventing City Opera

Can re-interpretation improve a symphony or concerto? Can an ingenious staging fundamentally enhance an opera?
My friend Alexander Toradze has long made a specialty of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. He reads it as a memorial to the composer’s soulmate Maximilian Shmitgoff, who had committed suicide. Personally, I doubt that the detailed scenario Lexo extrapolates corresponds comprehensively to what was in Prokofiev’s head and heart. It doesn’t matter. The result is an interpretation in “Toradze style,” more extreme in nuance and tempo than anything Prokofiev the pianist might have attempted. To my ears, Toradze’s version is more emotionally eventful, more confessional, than the piece as Prokofiev conceived it.
The current New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, directed by Christopher Alden, may be a comparable case in point. Remarkably, it is a New York premiere. Previously, I had only known this final Bernstein stage work via Bernstein’s recording, which I long ago put out of my mind. A Quiet Place was declared DOA at its 1983 Houston premiere. Bernstein had composed an opera charting the later lives of the unhappy suburban couple he created in his light opera Trouble in Tahiti (1951). In fact, Bernstein decided to incorporate Trouble in Tahiti — all of it — as a preamble to A Quiet Place. He had long struggled toward a “mature” compositional idiom, building on the popular early works preceding his New York Philharmonic tenure. A Quiet Place seemed as knotty, dissonant, and uneven as Trouble in Tahiti had been tonal, tuneful, and assured. In a later version (used by City Opera), Trouble in Tahiti became a flashback midway through A Quiet Place. Either way, the two operas sat uneasily beside one another. And they raised touchy questions about the trajectory of Bernstein’s compositional career.
Alden’s gripping new production has many virtues. It delights the eye and tickles the brain. A gifted ensemble of singing actors functions flawlessly. But the crucial achievement may be a calculated decision to blur the lines between the old and new.
In the City Opera program book, Alden observes that he’s rejected the literalism of the original production in favor of a more “fluid,” “open-ended” treatment. This fluidity takes many forms. To begin with, everyone is on stage much of the time. Bernstein and his librettist, Stephen Wadsworth, explore a family — husband/father, mother/wife, two kids — sundered by changing times. We observe them in the fifties, we revisit them in the eighties. In Alden’s staging, we see the fifties and eighties all at once. Though killed in a car crash — the opera begins with her funeral — Dinah remains omnipresent: a living ghost, she poignantly observes the fates of her husband, son, and daughter. Thus intermingled, Trouble in Tahiti acquires shadows and A Quiet Place gains a melodious levity.
Mulling it all the morning after, I don’t know that Alden has persuaded me that Bernstein’s characters are more than ephemeral. But I’m persuaded that something enduring may well be happening at the City Opera. George Steel, who took over the troubled company last season, maintains that it is the place for brave repertoire, for smart young artists, for assiduously honed ensemble performances. He also insists that the State Theater — with an enlarged pit and new interior surfaces — has at last acquired the acoustical makeover it’s urgently needed for more than 40 years. From my seat in the first ring, the sound from the pit was substantially warmer and rounder than before. This is a company to watch.

an ArtsJournal blog