Leonard Bernstein's intensely felt and frequently grim new opera, "A Quiet Place," had its premiere here Friday night at Jones Hall for the Performing Arts before an audience that broke in repeatedly with applause and rose for a seven-minute ovation for the composer at the end.
But there was already a sign that "A Quiet Place," like many of Bernstein's works, may be controversial. It was hailed in the Sunday Houston Post by critic Carl Cunningham as "a masterful music drama and deeply moving statement on the subject of human tolerance."
But Houston Chronicle critic Ann Holmes wrote that the opera represented "a valiant but only partly successful effort" to come to terms with its subject, the pain of death and the problem of estrangement within a contemporary American family.
Roger L. Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, which is producing the opera jointly with the Houston Grand Opera and La Scala in Milan, was present for the opening. He said during intermission that though he had not yet seen "A Quiet Place" in its complete version, most of the people with whom he had talked about it here were "ecstatic."
In this production, which is scheduled to come to the Kennedy Center in October, "A Quiet Place" was double-billed with Bernstein's 31-year-old opera "Trouble in Tahiti." The latter is about the strained marriage of an archetypal couple, Sam and Dinah, "in a little white house" in a carefully manicured suburb.
In "A Quiet Place," which is a far more complex and lengthy work, Bernstein picks up on the same family 31 years later, as a way of exploring the acute strains that have been placed on the institution of the family during the intervening years.
"A Quiet Place," which follows "Trouble in Tahiti" in this production, lasts one hour and 45 minutes and is made up of four scenes connected with orchestral and vocal interludes. The mother, Dinah, has just killed herself and the two children, Dede and Junior, who were long estranged from their parents, return for the funeral and to confront their father, Sam.
The opera, while not literally autobiographical, grew out of the common experience of both Bernstein and 30-year-old librettist Stephen Wadsworth of losing close family members. In Bernstein's case it was his wife, Felicia Montealegre, and in Wadsworth's case it was a sister who was killed in a car accident. One poignant detail that Bernstein took trouble not to publicize was that the premiere took place the day after the fifth anniversary of his wife's death.
An especially dramatic moment during the bows on opening night came when Bernstein, as he crossed the stage hugging cast members, paused for a long embrace with soprano Sheri Greenwald, who plays Dede and whose own father had died only five days before.
The discrepancy in the reactions of the two Houston critics is not as hard to explain as it might first seem.
Holmes' principal criticism is that "A Quiet Place" "lacks the inspired melodic material of 'Trouble in Tahiti' and in fact borrows its best material from 'Tahiti.' "
Cunningham suggested that this was deliberate on Bernstein's part. He observed with approval that "the score proceeds very much from the style of the Second Viennese School," typified by the atonal works of Scho nberg, Webern and Berg, a school of composition that is not particularly melodic in the conventional sense. The densely symphonic score moves back and forth freely between tonality and atonality, using, among other things, Dinah's aria from "Tahiti"--"Then love will lead us to a quiet place"--much in the way that Berg, especially, would use such tonal material in his works.
Holmes also wrote that the text of "A Quiet Place" was "murky" and "often unconvincing."
The performances and productions were strongly praised and there was agreement that "Trouble in Tahiti" remained, as Holmes wrote, "a gem."