NEW YORK — Two 20th-century works that depict their composers' vastly divergent views of domestic life are on display for the New York City Opera's abbreviated fall season.
Leonard Bernstein's only full-length opera, "A Quiet Place," first performed in 1983, received its New York premiere last Wednesday night. On Sunday afternoon, the company revived Richard Strauss' "Intermezzo," which dates from 1923. They will alternate in repertory through Nov. 21.
Both performances showed the struggling City Opera at its best, with terrific casts, superb playing by the orchestra and high production values. But the Bernstein comes across as an earnest effort to resuscitate a work of limited merit, while the Strauss opus is an unexpected delight.
"A Quiet Place" was conceived by Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth as a sequel to the composer's 1952 "Trouble in Tahiti." That earlier piece is a jazzy, tuneful series of glimpses into the troubled marriage of a prosperous suburban couple named Sam and Dinah. The later work opens at Dinah's funeral and asks us to care about a family for which the term dysfunctional seems inadequate. There's the gay, schizophrenic, draft-dodging son, Junior, his sister, Dede, and Francois, who was (or still is?) Junior's lover but is now married to Dede. Sam is estranged from all of them, but eventually – after three long acts – they reconcile.
Following an unsuccessful premiere in Houston, the authors revised the work so that "Trouble in Tahiti" now appears as a series of flashbacks in the second act. But the reworking can't hide the fact that the earlier work has far more vitality than the later score.
And if "Trouble in Tahiti," for which Bernstein wrote his own libretto, has a glibness to its satire, the sequel wears its heart on its sleeve, sometimes movingly, but often with an obviousness that borders on banality.
The large cast is uniformly strong, particularly baritone Joshua Hopkins as Junior and soprano Sara Jakubiak as Dede. As Dinah, mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley provides a vivid presence (appearing as a ghost except for the flashbacks), though her voice occasionally has trouble cutting through the orchestra. As Young Sam, baritone Christopher Feigum draws an incisive portrayal of an arrogant husband who neglects his wife and son, has sex with his secretary in the office, and humiliates his defeated opponent at handball. (In one of many inspired touches in Christopher Alden's staging, Sam brandishes his trophy like a giant phallus.)
Conductor Jayce Ogren shows a firm grasp of Bernstein's rhythmically challenging score and draws clear and crisp playing from the orchestra.
"Intermezzo," for which the composer wrote his own libretto, is a far more overtly autobiographical work than "A Quiet Place." Strauss (renamed Robert Storch) made himself the long-suffering hero, and his wife, Pauline, became the hot-tempered, self-indulgent Christine. He based the slender plot on a real incident from their marriage 20 years earlier when his wife had falsely accused him of infidelity.
Musically, "Intermezzo" is not quite top-drawer Strauss, but even off the second shelf, his genius for interweaving gorgeous strands of melody shines through. Written as an extended series of conversations, interspersed with spoken dialogue, "Intermezzo" has no big set pieces such as the arias or ensembles familiar from many of his other operas. But there are some stirring orchestral interludes, as well as a glorious closing passage for the reunited couple.
Any performance of "Intermezzo" must depend to a large extent on the soprano playing the role of Christine, since she is on-stage virtually throughout. City Opera is fortunate in having Mary Dunleavy in the part. Her vibrant voice and lively acting give a warm and sympathetic quality to a character that could easily be seen as merely vain and tiresome. Her tone occasionally turns glassy on high notes, but for the most part, she fills out the lines with grace and beauty.
Baritone Nicholas Pallesen avoids smugness as best he can as Storch, and tenor Andrew Bidlack displays a ringing, full-bodied sound as the young Baron Lummer, with whom Christine takes up an innocent flirtation.
The fast-paced production by Leon Major is a treat, greatly assisted by Andrew Jackness' sliding sets. There's even a simulated toboggan track for a snow scene. Music director George Manahan conducts a buoyant performance that brings out the delicacy of Strauss' orchestral textures.
With hard economic times limiting its fall productions to just two, the company presented Christine Brewer in an all-too-brief gala concert on Thursday.
It was a welcome chance to hear one of today's few true dramatic sopranos on the stage of a New York opera house. Brewer was supposed to star in the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Wagner's "Ring" cycle in spring of 2009, but withdrew because of a knee injury.
She opened with a dazzling "In questa reggia" from Puccini's "Turandot," then offered a moving "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," and closed with a group of songs by Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern. In the latter, she showed she can lighten her voice and move into popular mode without sounding the least bit arch or affected.