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BERNSTEIN: A Quiet Place

CD Button Boyle; Kaiser, Meachem, Bintner; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Nagano. Text and translation. Decca 002844002 (2)

Recordings Bernstein Cover 1218

LORD KNOWS  A Quiet Place has its proponents. In the years since 1983, when it had its Houston Grand Opera premiere, the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Wadsworth opera has been revised several times, picking up supporters who argue that its failure was undeserved. William R. Braun, heralding A Quiet Place’s belated New York debut, suggested in opera news in 2010 that it might be “the Great American Opera that supposedly doesn’t exist.” 

No one has shown as much devotion as Garth Edwin Sunderland, a composer and “interdisciplinary artist” who adapted the libretto and orchestration into the 2013 chamber version recorded here. While the original Quiet Place called for a seventy-two-piece orchestra, including a synthesizer and electric guitar, Sunderland has scored the piece for just eighteen instruments, all acoustic. (This isn’t quite apostasy. The original orchestration wasn’t entirely Bernstein’s; Broadway vets Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal contributed.) Sunderland has brought new musical lucidity to the piece, in the process mitigating its elephantiasis: the family at the center of this intimate domestic drama no longer registers as a modern version of Wotan and his brood. Sunderland also jettisons Trouble in Tahiti, the 1952 one-act that served as the basis for A Quiet Place and has been performed with it in its previous versions, as either a prologue or a flashback. The daunting length has been reduced, in Sunderland’s rendering, to a compact, swift-moving 115 minutes. 

But I’m still among the naysayers. The biggest problem is Wadsworth’s libretto. The action concerns a dysfunctional suburban family of four—Sam, the male protagonist of Trouble in Tahiti; Dede, his daughter; Junior, his mentally disturbed son; and François, Dede’s husband and Junior’s former lover. They convene to bury Dinah, the family matriarch, who has died in a car wreck that is later revealed to have been intentional. The opera’s bisexuality, incest, toxic anger and suicide seem intended to supply a patina of “adultness” and Deep Truth.

The funeral, which comprises Act I, is an occasion for unmotivated nastiness: Sam rages at Junior, “You shit … you dirty our house”; Junior responds, “Hey Big Daddy, you driving me batty,” a mocking aria set to a stripper’s blues. Trouble in Tahiti reeks of city-slicker condescension toward suburban complacency; Act I of A Quiet Place echoes it, presenting the funeralgoers as a mass of bleating, small-minded fools. In the subsequent two acts, the family works toward rapprochement. We’re meant to feel a measure of catharsis at the end, but the work doesn’t earn it, because it doesn’t contain a single convincing moment.

Bernstein’s score is the piece’s chief distinction. But while the composer’s work is competent and coherent, it isn’t exactly inspired. Much of it revisits well-trod ground—Copland-esque elegies and jazz riffs out of West Side Story. The single most effective moment is, in fact, an outright quotation, albeit a clever one, when Dede and Junior reminisce about childhood play to the scampering accompaniment of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. When you compare the best of A Quiet Place with, say, the Candide overture, the West Side Story quintet or Wonderful Town’s “Wrong-Note Rag,” you can’t help but notice that the need for “seriousness,” combined perhaps with declining resources, diminished Bernstein’s inventiveness and energy. 

The chief failure of the score is the dullness of the vocal writing. Bernstein’s word-setting is exact, but he doesn’t merge musical and theatrical logic to create great opera. The work gives its four principals plenty of center-stage opportunities, but (perhaps because the characters are so crudely drawn) they never define themselves through what they sing. Because of this, none of the four worthy principals on this recording has much impact. Claudia Boyle is the most vivid among them, achieving a nice balance between cheeriness and anxiety in her portrayal of Dede. The piece doesn’t offer much insight into just who Sam might be; Lucas Meachem is understandably unable to fill in the gaps. Junior is more an assemblage of tics than a coherent character; Gordon Bintner embodies the role’s various attitudes but doesn’t create a bona fide human being. François is the most opaque character of all. Does he love Dede? Junior? What was his bond with the departed Dinah? Why has he gotten mixed up with this clan? Joseph Kaiser’s performance doesn’t begin to answer these questions, nor could it have been expected to. 

Kent Nagano has become a prominent proponent of this troubled work. He led this chamber version’s 2013 premiere and reprised his duties in this 2014 live performance recorded in Montreal. His reading is firmly, sensitively paced, and he draws translucent sounds from the Orchestre Symphonique. But even his stalwart efforts can’t convince me that A Quiet Place is of enduring worth. —Fred Cohn



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