Notes and Editorial Reviews
Here is the fulfilment of a long-cherished project. Its roots are in the 1952 one-acter, Trouble in Tahiti, in the mixed-genre Mass of 1971, in the 1977 Songfest (which the composer himself called "a study for an American opera"), in Weill, Blitzstein, Menotti and dozens of other composers who have contributed, positively or negatively, to Bernstein's vision of the Authentic American Opera. Most of all it grows out of his disappointment that American composers did not follow the lead of West Side Story.
The other side to it is that both composer and librettist were preoccupied with recent bereavement, so that when Bernstein suggested a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti he and Stephen Wadsworth immediately found themselves
on the same wavelength. Marrying those grandiose ambitions and intensely personal experiences into a coherent work of art proved to be an arduous process, in the course of which Trouble in Tahiti became incorporated into its own sequel as a series of flashbacks.
Dinah, wife of successful businessman Sam, has died in a car crash, and the family is now gathered for her funeral. Their son Junior is "a crazy queer who skipped the draft" (one of several lines which amusingly defeat the translators of the libretto) and the most obvious victim of his parents' joyless marriage. He is given to psychotic states and longs for reconciliation with his father. Daughter Dede, who may have had an incestuous relationship with Junior, has married his lover, Francois; this sounds cosy. But all three are troubled, principally because of their unfinished emotional business with Sam.
The Quiet Place is a realm of remembered shared intimacy, the opposite of the restless emptiness Sam and Dinah inadvertently drifted into. It is now the goal of the rest of the family, who have to rediscover how to communicate. The relationship of father and son is the most sustained idea in the opera. In Act 1 Junior scandalizes the funeral gathering with a decadent stripping song. In the flashbacks of Act 2 something of the background to his present torment is sketched in; young Sam wins a handball trophy and young Dinah returns from a movie (Trouble in Tahiti), half scornful of its absurdity but half dependent on its glittering alternative to drab reality—both of them have avoided going to see Junior as the hero in his school play. In Act 3 Old Sam mellows, having read touching extracts from Dinah's diaries. For the first time he welcomes Francois into the family, and after an unexpected and vicious argument he finally takes Junior into his arms.
However you tell it, the story has the look of a Richard Strauss Intermezzo gone to New York and coated in self-indulgent breast-beating; and a parable of middle-class American alienation, however believable, may not be everyone's idea of a promising opera text. But I have to say that that final reconciliation is intensely moving, even though it seems in part too obvious (any devotee of American soap could see it coming) and in part too obscure (what is the "gun" which looms so frighteningly in Junior's earlier ravings, and which he now symbolically hands back to Sam?). Its power must have something to do with the extra-ordinary precision and commitment of the whole performance, and it is certainly heightened by the timing of final argument—after the apparent reconciliation. It also has to do with an underlying strength of the whole opera—the fact that the breakdown of communication is a ready-made metaphor for Bernstein's music, undercutting most of the reasons that might be advanced for resisting it. Which is to say that a stylistic mishmash, a sense of rootlessness, ennui, embarrassment, superficiality, vulgarity and so on can all be taken as part of the self-conscious role-playing which afflicts the characters—they represent the problem the family has in saying anything truly heartfelt. And if the ending hardly transcends all that the reconciliation on stage is, after all, only a beginning.
In any case this must surely be one of Bernstein's most impressive scores. Certainly the orchestration is as characterful as you could wish—punchy and seductive by turns—and the ideas are for the most part strong enough for their purposes. A pervasive descending motif recurs at pivotal moments — "an old certainty," Stephen Wadsworth calls it — perhaps slightly too close to the "Prize Song" for comfort, but no more so than some of the lump-in-throat bits of West Side Story are to the "Redemption" motif from The Ring. Indeed, anyone who knows West Side Story will also know whether they find an aftertaste of saccharine in Bernstein's would-be heartfelt music. My own resistance to the Bernstein of the Mass and Songfest is fairly high. But in A Quiet Place I have to confess particular admiration for the melancholy mindscapes of the postludes (even if they do owe something of their effectiveness to the example of Wozzeck) and his sleazy Broadway idiom is at its sharpest for the representation of Junior's outrageousness and Dinah's suburban blues.
That is not to say that this is an unblemished masterpiece. The First Act drags rather (as first acts so often do) and one spends a fair amount of emotional energy getting to know various of Dinah's associates only to discover that they play no further part in the opera. Sam and Dinah's Act 2 duet seems to me not to match the quality of the set-piece solos, some of the gnomic utterances of the Brecht/Weill chorus seem contrived, and the symbolism of the garden (= the Quiet Place = the formerly shared, now longed-for intimacy) is hardly subtle. Also I wonder quite how a stage production would cope with a scenario in which nothing actually happens and where the dialogue consists largely of comic-strip thought-bubbles.
But Bernstein considers this "emotionally the strongest thing I have ever written"; I think he's right. And whether or not the goal of the True American Opera is an attainable, or even desirable, one, I think A Quiet Place does take a definite step in that direction.
The performance is inspired. Long stretches of rhythmically displaced, dovetailed dialogue must be the devil's own job to co-ordinate, and the cast bring to it a confidence and razor-sharp precision astonishing for a life recording. Wendy White as the young Dinah recounts her visit to the movies with terrific panache, and Beverly Morgan is superb in the flighty virtuousity of Dede's lines. The male roles are not all sung with that degree of distinction, nor am I convinced that the writing for them is quite so memorable. Nevertheless, they are well enough done to engage a measure of sympathy for the characters. The Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra play magnificently and Bernstein's conducting has a charisma without which one suspects the whole thing would make far less of an impression.
Incidentally, the two CDs last 74'57" and 74'09" — bravo to that. The sound is superb in terms of balance and realism — again a marvellous achievement for a live recording.
-- Gramophone [10/1987]
Works on This Recording
A Quiet Place by Leonard Bernstein
Rachel Ann Morgan (Soprano),
Chester Ludgin (Baritone),
Berthold Brandstetter (Baritone),
Peter Kazaras (Tenor),
Theodor Uppman (Bass)
ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1983/1984; USA
Date of Recording: 1986
Venue: Live Vienna State Opera House
Featured Sound Samples
Act II: "I was standing in a garden"
Act II: "With a quiet place"
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