BERNSTEIN: A Quiet Place

BERNSTEIN: A Quiet Place. Chester Ludgin (Old Sam); Beverly Morgan (Dede); John Brandstetter (Junior); Peter Kazaras (François); Jean Kraft (Susie); Theodor Uppman (Bill); Clarity James (Mrs. Doc); John Kuether (Doc); Charles Walker (Funeral Director); Douglas Perry (Analyst); Wendy White (Dinah); Edward Crafts (Young Sam); Louise Edeiken, Mark Thomsen and Kurt Ollmann (Trio); Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 419 761·2 (two compact discs (DDD); 74:57, 74:09), produced by Hanno Rinke.

It is never easy to review a lengthy unfamiliar contemporary opera within the time-frame allotted by a publication like this one: Quite a few hearings are necessary to develop a fair assessment of the relative merits of libretto, music, and their union into a distinct artistic Gestalt. Several factors make A Quiet Place especially difficult to integrate and digest quickly: 1) Like virtually all of Bernstein’s output, the work’s straining for chic stylishness through continual reference to current issues elicits much wincing on first exposure. 2) Combining “popular” and “serious” stylistic features somewhat differently than in previous works, it requires a bit of adjustment in perspective. 3) This new and unfamiliar opera absorbs as a flashback within its second act the very familiar (to me, anyway) Trouble in Tahiti in its entirety. Having lived with A Quiet Placefor a few weeks now, I am still inclined to view my current reaction—a very ambivalent one—as tentative and provisional.

As many readers may already know, A Quiet Place was composed during the period 1980-83 on a combined commission from the Houston Grand Opera, the Kennedy Center, and La Scala. The librettist is Stephen Wadsworth, a music journalist who was 27 years old at the beginning of the project. It was originally intended as a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, the two to be presented as a double bill, but an unsuccessful premiere in Houston prompted revisions that included the incorporation of one opera into the other. The new material addresses the characters presented in the earlier work from the perspective of 30 years later.

A Quiet Place begins at Dinah’s funeral—she has been killed in a car accident. The surrounding events provide a crucible in which the remaining family members—son Junior, daughter Dede, and their father Sam—confront the demons from their past that block their ability to communicate with each other, until they finally transcend their pain and achieve love and acceptance. This is the basic idea—a reasonable enough skeleton for a drama about essential intra-family dynamics. Except that there are certain complicating factors that distinguish it from your typical domestic situation: Junior is now a homosexual with periodic psychotic episodes: We learn that as a child he enjoyed an incestuous relationship with his sister Dede (“anyway I never dared to come inside her,” he assures us), until he was shot in the shoulder by his father; Dede is now married to François, a French-Canadian who is also Junior’s lover. All this may seem like deliberate and calculated sensationalism until one learns from Joan Peyser’s incredibly mean-spirited, if revealing, book (Bernstein: A Biography) that much of this is straight Bernstein autobiography. 

There is no escaping the fact that the musical highpoint as well as the structural centerpiece of A Quiet Place is Trouble in Tahiti, for which Bernstein wrote both libretto and music. Dating from 1952, the one-act opera deals with the unhappy marriage of a young suburban couple—Sam and Dinah. Although the sad emptiness of their lives is portrayed with great poignancy, prompting some of Bernstein’s most beautifully affecting music in an operatic vein, their plight is given an ironic perspective by being embedded within a pop-music framework. Addressing the hollow complacency of the early postwar period, Trouble in Tahiti is one of the few Bernstein works whose topicality is authentic and prophetic, rather than an exploitation of attitudes that already appear trite and dated (e.g. Mass, Kaddish, etc.) Indeed, together with West Side Story and the Chichester Psalms, Trouble in Tahiti is Bernstein’s most fully realized and wholly satisfactory work, although its duration of less than an hour may have prevented it from achieving the widespread popularity it might otherwise have earned. Much of the thematic material for A Quiet Place is drawn from the earlier work, and, in fact, a cynic might wonder whether the chief motivation for the new opera wasn’t an attempt to create a new life for Trouble in Tahiti by giving it more substantial dimensions.

The music newly composed for A Quiet Place is very different, despite its roots in the Stravinsky-via-Copland derivative that serves as Bernstein’s basic language. Its most notable and ambitious feature stems from an attempt to create a naturalistically American style of recitative as a vehicle for the wordy libretto. With its continual stream of self-consciously sophisticated wordplay, Wadsworth’s text often draws more attention than the music. For this Bernstein supplies a sort of atonal patter in bebop rhythm, often entailing the overlapping and interweaving of several simultaneous conversations within a larger musical line. Unfortunately, as clever an idea as this may be, the result is often aurally undecipherable and consequently pointless, although one wonders how the creative team was not aware of this.

There are several stern orchestral interludes that provide effective relief, but lack musical interest in themselves, while a sort of Greek chorus offers periodic commentary on the proceedings in a slightly ironic manner analogous to the role of the vocal trio Trouble in Tahiti. But while the contributions of the latter were in the pop-music vein, the chorus here sings in a stark chorale style strongly reminiscent of the choral writing of William Schuman. Some of the newly composed music is quite attractive—Dede’s aria at the beginning of Act III and the final ensemble, in particular.

Some aspects of the opera’s dramatic structure raise questions. What is the function of François? He is treated as an important character, but I fail to recognize his role as any real contribution. The shape of Act III is very problematical: Several episodes of sweet reflection and affectionate play arc suddenly disrupted by a rather contrived, but vicious, conflict. This is resolved as rapidly and artificially as it begins, permitting a final reconciliation. While musically attractive, the act is dramatically unsatisfying, and seems to unbalance the whole work. As an opera, A Quiet Place is strangely static, its action more an interplay of inner psychodynamics than the naturalistic interaction of real characters. This is not stated as a criticism, but only to distinguish it from the conventional Italianate genre.

Finally, as with virtually all of Bernstein’s most ambitious works, matters of taste, judgment, and character loom ubiquitously as embarrassing irritants. There is always the sense of serious issues exploited for the purpose of enhancing Bernstein’s own appearance of profundity—an appearance that is inevitably sabotaged by his treatment of the issues in ways that trivialize them. For example, the climax of Act I occurs when Junior finally confronts his father with anger he has suppressed for years. He expresses this rage by defiantly mocking his father with—a striptease?

The performance, taken from the Vienna State Opera production of 1986, though adequate enough, is not up to the standard one might expect for a production of this stature. None of the leading singers whose roles offer aria-like opportunities—Chester Ludgin as Old Sam, Beverly Morgan as Dede, for example—is at all impressive musically. The remainder are mediocre as well, while the orchestra is often flabby and sluggish.