Review: Curtis Opera Theatre Brings a Newly Revised ‘A Quiet Place’ to Kaye Playhouse
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, March 16, 2018
Let’s not beat about the bush: A Quiet Place, Leonard Bernstein’s second opera, is a frustrating thing, brimming over with musical ideas of great interest and occasional beauty, but saddled with an unpleasant, implausible cast of characters, a plot that would shame a soap-opera, and dialogue—lots of dialogue—that sounds like it came through a bad translation app.
Developed between 1980 and 1983, after Bernstein had “despaired of Broadway, because it [was] greedy and money-oriented and commercial,” and had reached an uneasy peace with serialism, A Quiet Place offered Bernstein and his collaborator Stephen Wadsworth—now a highly-regarded director, but then a twenty-seven-year-old friend of the family who had never written a libretto—an opportunity to push American opera “away from the musical” while enjoying “the luxury of not having to perk the audience up”—of “just writing what we feel like writing,” without “a strophe, or a couplet, or a stanza, or anything you could call a number, or even part of a number, or any rhymes.”
The premiere in Houston, in June 1983, was one of the most spectacular crash-and-burns in American musical history, prompting reviews that ranged from ambivalent to murderous, although, to be fair, even the most savage credited Bernstein’s honest “effort to deal with the world as he sees it” and acknowledged that his score was “thoroughly eclectic and craftily put together.” (Others were more welcoming and understanding: Andrew Porter, for one, writing in The New Yorker, rejoiced that “good American operas on contemporary subjects are still being composed.”)
Conceived as a sequel to Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (1952), and first performed as a long second act to that work, A Quiet Place was later divided into three acts, the second of which incorporated the whole of Trouble in Tahiti as a series of flashbacks. This version met with somewhat better success, especially in Christopher Alden’s production for New York City Opera, in 2010. To make the piece more accessible and intimate, the Bernstein Office then commissioned a one-act chamber version from Garth Edwin Sunderland, which omits Trouble in Tahiti altogether, along with about a quarter of A Quiet Place’s opening exposition, while restoring three arias cut from the original version and reassigning them among the principals. Sunderland’s version premiered in Berlin in 2013, and received its American premiere last week at the Curtis Opera Theatre, in Philadelphia. I saw a concert performance of the Curtis production this past Tuesday at the Kaye Playhouse.
So, thirty-five years on, how does A Quiet Place stand up, and what does the new chamber version do for it?
The score has real strengths—the opening scene, the longest continuous piece of music Bernstein ever wrote, is shapely, powerful, and tightly integrated, and the orchestral interludes throughout are moving and magnificently orchestrated (with help from Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal)—but Bernstein’s serial language consistently interferes with natural word-rhythms, and breaks up even the most lyrical passages with jerky pauses, pitch-displacements, and emphatic accents (for example, “It’s ev’rything THAT [rest] never WORKED [rest] CHURNED up aGA-ain” or “YOU demean your mother. You let her down and deFILE HER. You come and spit on don’t SAY IT! You shit, you dirty your mothER.”). In a talky show given to motormouth meltdowns, bilingual word-games, and densely layered, multi-textual ensembles, this is nearly fatal, and Sunderland’s chamber orchestration—14 melody instruments and percussion, pared down from the original Salome-sized armada—can do little to help it.
The larger problem remains what it always was: A Quiet Place adds nothing of substance to what we already know, or would naturally infer, from Trouble in Tahiti, which portrays Sam and Dinah’s unhappy marriage “in the little white house in Scarsdale,” where they love, traumatize, and neglect ten-year old Junior—vividly established but neither seen nor heard—in more or less equal measure. After Tahiti’s quietly eloquent climax, we can already foresee that in thirty years’ time, when A Quiet Place begins, Sam will still be an ambitious, self-involved blowhard, Dinah will have come to a sad end one way or another, and Junior will be an angry mess with daddy-issues. As a result, the length and portentousness of A Quiet Place feels like excess baggage, exaggerated and unnecessary, while its web of outside references—to Trouble in Tahiti, West Side Story, and Candide—calls attention to what’s missing. At the same time, A Quiet Place quotes constantly from Trouble in Tahiti, both musically and verbally, and large parts of it are incomprehensible unless those quotes are recognized and understood. The tail is not just wagging the dog; the tail is the dog.
Even if A Quiet Place were capable of standing on its own, Sunderland’s cuts, additions, and rearrangements would seem to create new problems: an incomplete exposition is more frustrating than a boring one, the three restored arias belabor the obvious, and the reassignment of roles in the finale elevates an important secondary character to Messiah-like proportions at the very last minute, for no clear reason—a literal deus ex machina, inserted dangerously close to the original version’s concluding “Amen.” This chamber version may make A Quiet Place more marketable, but it’s hard to see how it can be Sunderland’s “alternate take on the material” while at the same time “preserv[ing] Bernstein’s intention.”
The performers, a mix of Curtis students and recent grads, did a fine job with what they had, and many of them showed real promise, most notably soprano Ashley Milanese, bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman, violinist Ania Filochowska, and flutist Alejandro Lombo.
As Bernstein’s centenary season winds down, it’s a shame that Trouble in Tahiti hasn’t gotten its due. It’s a dark gem that perfectly distills the cultural verities of the 1950s in order to explode them, with devastating economy, in a brilliant pastiche of high art and pop-song lasting barely three-quarters of an hour. As an emblem of the era that Made America Great in the first place, it seems fresher and more necessary than ever, especially now that Sam—“The winner! A hero in a story with a wonderful sequel: Men are created unequal!!”—occupies the White House. Bernstein’s 1973 recording is just about perfect.
And if you want to refresh your memory of how brilliant Bernstein could be when he worked with artistic equals under firm direction, check out the last number of this: even sung by a couple of clowns, it does everything Bernstein said opera should do, and it’s way more “sharp-eared [in its] transformation of speech rhythms and speech inflections into music” than anything in A Quiet Place.
Curtis Opera Theatre presents A Quiet Place at The Kaye Playhouse, Hunter College on March 13, 2018. Music by Leonard Bernstein; libretto by Stephen Wadsworth; chamber adaptation by Garth Edwin Sunderland. Corrado Rovaris, conductor; Daniel Fish, stage director; Curtis Symphony Orchestra.
Cast: Tyler Zimmerman (Sam), Dennis Chmelensky (Junior), Ashley Milanese (Dede), Jean-Michel Richer (François), Siena Licht Miller (Dinah), Patrick Wilhelm (Bill), Aaron Crouch (Funeral Director), Anastasiia Sidorova (Mrs. Doc), Sophia Fiuza Hunt (Susie), Vartan Gabrielian (Doc), Seongwo Woo (Analyst), and Tiffany Townsend, Hannah Klein, Daniel Taylor, and Adam Kiss (Mourners).
Cover: (l. to r.) Ashley Milanese (Dede), Sophia Hunt (Susie), Siena Licht Miller (Dinah) in ‘A Quiet Place;’ photo: Steven Pisano.