The One-Eyed Man

By James Jorden

The New York City Opera’s production of the Bernstein/Wadsworth A Quiet Place won what are called “mixed” reviews. A few critics hosannaed “Thanks be to Great God Lenny for smooching us once more with his plump, moist genius,” but the majority echoed Cecil B. DeMille’s tactful reaction to Norma Desmond’s bizarre comeback screenplay, “There are some good things in it…” 

Emerging from the fray as something of a critic’s and popular darling was director Christopher Alden. Even the generally skeptical Martin Bernheimer raved about the “brilliant production, staged with an enlightened fusion of abstraction and realism” in the Financial TimesZachary Woolfe devoted almost half of his New York Observer review to an analysis of how Alden’s stagecraft made whole the gaping wounds in Stephen Wadsworth’s drama, leading off with a pullquote Ma Alden might have penned: “If City Opera gives us an Alden production a year in perpetuity (which seems to be the plan), it’ll be an extraordinary gift to our cultural life.”

I was, I admit, not so enthusiastic. My vastly briefer experience in the medium of the 300-word overnight review may help excuse my not being so articulate as Bernheimer, but even with more room for discussion, my feelings about Alden’s participation were—there’s that word again—mixed.

Make no mistake: Alden is a very talented guy and an astonishingly hard worker, particularly given the likelihood that his NYCO fee was nominal at best. I had the interesting experience of assisting him for a few weeks back in the late 1980s when he did some work for an ill-fated downtown company called Opera at the Academy, and after all these years I remain in awe of his ability to persuade opera singers to exit their comfort zones and really physically engage with character. He also directed one of the two or three loveliest opera productions I have ever seen, The Mother of Us All at Glimmerglass and later at NYCO, where, shamefully, the New York audience stayed away in droves. (Idiots!)

Many of his excellent and familiar qualities were apparent in A Quiet Place. The singers always projected the attitude that they were engaged in serious artistic work, not just going a gig.  The low-budget unit set was employed imaginatively to suggest three main locales and various minor “flashback” time-and-places, and Alden’s signature zombie-walking crowd scenes were, as always,  razor-sharp in timing and, unlike in last season’s Don Giovanni, the eerie effect was kept to a restrained and therefore more effective minimum.

That a number of stand-and-sing moments crept in is probably inevitable given the NYCO’s limited rehearsal time; given the choice, it’s surely preferable to have singers in steady eye contact with the conductor if the alternative is musical chaos. So far, Alden excelled.

Where my doubt crept in was in precisely the moments that so impressed Woolfe: the broader strokes that attempted to unify and make emotional sense of the sprawling and at times nonsensical dramatic action of the piece.  One of Alden’s big ideas was to darken the tone of the interpolated Trouble in Tahiti scenes to better blend with the surrounding gloom. Thus Dinah doesn’t just take in a matinee of the “Technicolor twaddle” musical, she makes a cocktail-fueled afternoon of it with pals Susie and Mrs. Doc.  Even though it’s a flashback to 1953 we see the two older women as they appear in the 1983 “present,” and we wonder, why is a nice young married like Dinah hanging out with these two sodden crones?

Or, worse: Sam’s little scene in his office with Miss Brown. In the two-character format of the original Tahiti, he addressed his “have I made any passes at you?” to, realistically, nobody; we’re to imagine her presence, and the joke is that her answer is so definitely in the affirmative that we don’t even need to hear it. Sam then counsels her to forget that it even happened: a gaffe.

Well, Alden decides that Sam’s not being quite hypocritical or adulterous enough just making a casual pass, so now Sam has to force Miss Brown to blow him right then and there. (Onstage fellatio is generally problematic. After the deed is done, Miss Brown returns to her receptionist’s desk without so much as a handkerchief to wipe her chin. I shudder to think what her voice will sound like when she answers the phone.)

Anyway, while Miss Brown is pleasuring Sam, not ten feet of stage distance away, Dinah is on her shrink’s couch warbling of her “quiet place.”  This juxtaposition makes her look like an idiot and Sam an outright bastard, which, to my mind, makes utter nonsense emotionally of the halting attempts at reconciliation in the final scene. Why should we be invested in the reconciliation of a passive-aggressive drunk and a lying sex abuser?

This point would be moot if we were working with a spoken drama, but Bernstein lavishes some really gorgeous music on that final Tahiti scene. It’s folly to try to assign specific meaning to music, but it does seem apparent that the composer was trying to express some kind of strong, transcendent emotion: hope or despair, or maybe the possiblity of both. After all, Sam and Dinah do agree on something, however trivial: the choice of a movie for the evening. Is this a glimmer of hope for compromise, or a weary admission that there’s nothing more worth discussing? But Alden’s direction reduces them to unsympathetic, unrepentant brutes, so why should I care happens to them next? And yet the music does seem to care. Can music be hypocritical?

To be sure, Alden’s inventions perk up the non-Tahiti scenes, in particular the difficult to stage onstage game of tag in the last act. His biggest intervention, the introduction of Dinah’s ghost as an observer of her family’s grieving and bickering, also served to unify the fragmented material, though I think it took the edge off the effect of Dinah’s offstage echoing of Old Sam’s reading of her diary. The overplayed vulgarity of the funeral congregation was, I think, a mistake: these people are quite horrible enough come scritto.

So I’m not quite so enthusiastic as Woolfe is about Christopher Alden. But for opera stage direction, New York is a kingdom of the blind; until matters improve vastly, Alden is certainly entitled to his place on the throne.

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