A dilettante at large: A QUIET PLACE (Curtis Institute of Music)

(Note: This is a series of reviews of art forms about which I know next to nothing as I step out of my professional comfort zone, theater. If you haven’t yet met D.A.L., take a look at my review of Opera Philadelphia’s Written On Skin.)


The Curtis Institute of Music and Opera Philadelphia’s stunning production Leonard Bernstein’s opera, A Quiet Place, is one of many worldwide celebrations of his centennial; coming up is the National Museum of American Jewish History’s exhibition of all things Bernstein (the D.A. L.’s next stop) and this weekend’s Philadelphia Orchestra concerts that include Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety. The legendary composer was, in fact, a Curtis student, so there is something of a homecoming about this extraordinary production, a work Bernstein said was “unlike any work I have ever written or seen.”

Discord, dissonance, disharmony: the language of music finds its perfect expression in the language of family strife. There’s plenty of both in A Quiet Place, a rarely performed piece about unhappy, often cruel people, written as a sequel to Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The music is sometimes wildly jazzy, sometimes disturbingly syncopated, sometimes soaringly melodic.

In Stephen Wadsworth’s libretto, everybody gets a chance to rail and accuse, raking up memories in contemporary arias that create complex characters. The mother’s funeral, after her death in a car crash, probably a suicide, is the cause of their reunion. The refrain, sung by each character, is “I’m sorry.”

Sam (Tyler Zimmerman) is the bereaved husband, sitting numb and silent until the late arrival of both grown children. Dede (soprano Ashley Milanese) comes with her husband Francois (a full-throated, impassioned Jean-Michel Richer), a Quebecois whose lyrics are often in French; we learn that Francois met Dede while he was her brother’s lover. Junior, who is aggressively gay in both manner and costume seemed to me the dominant role, and Dennis Chmelensky’s moving, rich baritone accompanied by real acting provided a fierce center to the piece and to the family’s dysfunction.

Under the baton of  Corrado Rovaris and the direction of Daniel Fish, this opulent, nervy chamber version of the opera is both heart-wrenching and blood-chilling.  The daring visuals, using the large Perlman stage to create vast, dark, isolating space, are created by both the set (designed by Laura Jellinek) and the lighting (designed by Barbara Samuels).  There are (overlong) projections (designed by Jeff Larson) of the characters’ memories in the style of old-fashioned home movies, so there is much to appreciate besides the glorious voices of this young cast.

[Curtis Opera Theatre at the Perelman, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts] March 7-11, 2018;


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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.