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Lowell House Bungles Bernstein

A Quiet Place Directed by Matt Buchanan At Lowell House Dining Hall Through April 28

By Brian R. Hecht

There is a recurring image in popular culture--perhaps from cartoons, or maybe sitcoms--of a mother dragging her son to an opera to introduce him to "culture." Invariably, the small boy (or sometimes brutish Neanderthal husband) fidgets in an oversized seat of plush velvet as metal-horned, breast-plated Wagnerian heroines screech unbearably in German. For the boy, the opera is long, boring and utterly meaningless.

The Lowell House Opera's production of A Quiet Place might have dispelled the myth of the dismal, tragically un-hip opera. The cast is young and energetic. The Lowell House Dining Room provides a casual seating atmosphere. And Leonard Bernstein '39, the opera's co-composer, was responsible for some of America's most exciting and original symphonic and theatrical music.

Unfortunately, this opera is very long. It is very boring. And despite the glimpses of Bernstein's genius which occasionally shine through, this opera hardly merits a Harvard student's Saturday night (in fact, more than half the audience was composed of tuxedo-clad adults).

Written in 1983, A Quiet Place has only been performed twice in the United States. One explanation might be that this unremarkable work is so difficult to stage effectively that it is hardly worth the effort. Music Director Jeff Tennessen admits in his program notes, rather suspiciously, that this particular production has "not been necessarily easy for any of us."

The production and directorial staff deserve sympathy on this account: the opera's plot is gushy and melodramatic in a way that transcends even the often sappy plots of Romantic and Classical opera. A family tries to regroup after the tragic (drunk driving) death of a mother. Daughter Susie, son Junior and Francoise, who is Susie's husband and Junior's former lover, return for the funeral and try to heal various painful wounds from the past. This is the stuff not of musical opera, but of soap opera.

The lead performers--none of whom are Harvard undergraduates--have formidable operatic voices and display a powerful stage presence. Kathryn Marlow, who appears as the young mother in a flashback scene, gives a stellar performance, providing the only true laughs in the seemingly endless opera.

As the father, John Tedeschi convincingly recalls the early days of his marriage. And Damon Myers, as the young father (in flashbacks) is perfectly campy, capturing the essence of the 1950s patriarch. The actors portraying the family's younger generation all perform well, although Victor Jannett seems slightly out of place in the "all-I-ever-needed-was-a-Dad" role of Junior.

Matt Buchanan's stage direction is interesting, if not particularly inspired. His two-sided, revolving set design is innovative and, in some instances, visually stunning. Unfortunately, the orchestra is placed in front of the stage, causing the tall conductor's head to block some of the action.

The major blame for this tedious production lies with Tennessen, who did an admirable job organizing a 60-piece orchestra, but does a less admirable job coordinating the actual performance. Short bursts of orchestral music which punctuate the vocals are invariably marred by sloppy entrances and exits. The players are tentative on softer passages and overpowering on louder ones. The off-stage chorus, microphoned in, is almost always off-balance and off-sync, and the vocal "jazz trio" is dull and lifeless.

This opera is billed as "Harvard's official tribute to Leonard Bernstein." Indeed, Bernstein's long relationship with Harvard since his graduation is quickly becoming legendary. But Bernstein might have been a bit disappointed that this was his official tribute. If Lenny had to choose one occassion to descend to Earth to witness a "tribute," he might want to wait until next month's Mainstage production of West Side Story.

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