Bernstein's troubled new opera

Leonard Bernstein has spent the better part of his peripatetic career on a teeter-totter between podium and composing studio. He is the international recording star, the darling of Broadway, the serious symphonic composer with deep-felt messages to proclaim.

And now, again, he is the opera composer. The fruition of this facet has been on view at the Houston Grand Opera these past two weeks, a three-way commission among the Houston, the Washington Opera Society, and La Scala, Milan.

Everything he does is consummately interesting, even if some of his efforts are bemired in interpretive or proselytizing excess. Mr. Bernstein at his best is a marvel of spontaneity and propulsiveness, with great depths of emotion tellingly tapped. His work is humane. He is not afraid of exploring emotions and devastating moods. He is particularly adept at ferreting out the last degree of triumph and exultation.

He has never been afraid of risk-taking. I remember a performance of Elgar's ''Enigma Variations'' with the New York Philharmonic wherein the tempos were dragged out to a seeming crawl and yet the maestro was able to sustain tension, mood, and pathos throughout, no matter how apparently eccentric the ideas of pacing. Elgar's heart seemed revealed - all one can ask of any interpretation.

When the composer-maestro announced that he was working on a sequel to his 1952 ''Trouble in Tahiti,'' eyebrows rose. That opus (seen here as a curtain-raiser to the new opera) was a slender, half-satirical statement on the troubles of suburban life - which in 1952 was still something of a paradise-existence novelty.

It dealt with Sam and Dinah, who were on the verge of a marital crisis, yet chose to go to the movies rather than deal with their problems. A period-style vocal trio comments wryly on the action (such as it is). The best moments are Dinah's - a haunting soliloquy and the dazzling ''Island Magic,'' which supplies five scintillating minutes of Bernstein effects.

The sequel is called ''A Quiet Place,'' which were words spoken by Dinah in ''Tahiti's'' introspective soliloquy. The time is 30 years later. Dinah has just driven her car off a cliff, and the one-act, nearly two-hour opera is a gathering of the clan - family and friends - for the funeral and aftermath. Fundamentally, the story is a series of confrontations and reconciliations, with Sam making his peace with his children, and Dede and Francois edging toward meaningful love in their relationship.

The idea of exploring these people three decades later is surely interesting. But the characters as they unfold are a peculiar lot, to say the least. There is Sam, who refuses to acknowledge his son, Junior (talked about in ''Tahiti''), or his daughter, Dede (new to the plot). The two siblings are a compendium of neuroses. Dinah's friends are all rather weak people who never, it seems, really said they loved her.

Mr. Bernstein has composed some haunting music for the piece. His gift for setting conversational words to music is known from ''West Side Story'' and ''Candide.'' Here, there are too many words even for him to set. Not surprisingly, the best moments are introspective, such as Dede's haunting good-morning aria, where few words convey quantities of meaning and mood. There is a rage aria for Sam that is an effective combination of cries of anger and frustration, peppered with pleas for compassion and understanding.

Then there are two orchestral interludes that are extraordinary mood pieces. The first is Shostakovich in flavor, the second Berg, but both are indeed Bernstein in idiom. These two moments are so effective that one wonders if Mr. Bernstein is not in truth at his finest in nonverbal music when he has serious issues to ''discuss.''

Bernstein, who has always been fascinated with the trendy side of issues, made much, in preproduction interviews, of the notion of setting a genuine vernacular to music. He and his librettist, Stephen Wadsworth, discussed the importance of addressing contemporary American issues if opera is to be relevant.

Unfortunately, the vernacular chosen here is offensively four-letter-wordish. Also unfortunately, Wadsworth/Bernstein have decided on a libretto that reads like a sprawling TV script. Discursive librettos don't really work in opera; it takes too much time to get the words out on a musical line. Texts in opera must distill and pare away: Even Wagner's librettos, while hardly terse, seem the essence of pith compared with this one.

The plot convolutions are numerous. It seems that Junior fled to Canada to avoid the draft. There he became both psychotic and a homosexual. This and more indicate the tangle of motivations and hang-ups that generate the plot.

The underlying problem with ''A Quiet Place'' is one of balance. The piece is too long by nearly an hour. The music is too weighty for the almost inconsequential nature of the action it is framing. Bernstein seems so serious of purpose that the spontaneity one expects rarely peers through the fabric. The libretto is too trendy, people have too many things wrong with them, resolutions are too pat. But what is good about Bernstein's music is very, very good.

The Houston company did all it could to make the new opera look good. Peter Mark Schifter's direction of ''Trouble'' was witty and wry. He managed the sprawl of the first scene well, and throughout he allowed focuses to remain tight and sure. David Gropman's sets - superbly lighted by Neil Peter Jampolis - tied the two operas together visually.William Ivey Long's costumes were all excellent.

The cast in general was exceptionally good, although Chester Ludgin's Sam proved imposing if a bit thin of voice and fuzzy of diction. Peter Kazaras's Francois did not muster the strength needed to make the character work. Timothy Nolen strove valiantly to bring Junior to life, but it is the least sympathetic character. Dede is also a problem role, but Sheri Greenawald sang the role so ravishingly, and acted so convincingly, that one chose to overlook the flaws.

In the pit, John DeMain conducted ''A Quiet Place'' magnificently - a splendid sense of the dark colors, deep moods, and burnished passions in the best of the score.

Perhaps the burden of a sequel is too onerous. If, rather, ''A Quiet Place'' were reconceived as a separate work that would share a double bill, Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Wadworth might more easily find the balance between contemporary and universal, between the human and the absolute, worry less about rubbing the audience's nose in the minutiae of aberrance and give them the message of love and understanding that is clearly the aim here.

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