Written during the most exasperating period of his compositional career, Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place reflected all of his then current excesses – be they conducting commitments, prescription medications, Ballantine Scotch and his inability to say ‘no’. This more recent rewrite for chamber-sized forces (less than 20 musicians are employed here compared to the 70-piece ensemble that Lenny originally sought) achieves much. Gone is the earlier ‘flashback’ using his early-50s one acter Trouble in Tahiti, though many musical references remain, and this works for the better along with other judicious prunings by composer Garth Sunderland. The opera in this new incarnation is now cut down to just over 90-minutes in duration.

With A Quiet Place, we have graduated from the everyday marital issues seen in Trouble in Tahiti to a time following the death of wife Dinah in a car accident when the entire family (now including two adult children and a son-in-law, François) are all in crisis dealing not only with death, but issues of sexual orientation – for not only is the son, Junior, gay, he has had an affair with his sister’s husband somewhere in the past.

Perhaps the plot lies closer to soap opera? Yet they are certainly contemporary middle-class issues at play here. In fact, many of those discussed within the libretto, afflicted not only the composer, but also his librettist’s own life. And the libretto does include coarser words not generally used within a libretto bringing the lingual setting somewhat closer to the American vernacular I guess.

To be succinct, here is an opera in transition. Nagano, who’d worked with the composer on the initial mounting of A Quiet Place back in the mid-80s, conducts an excellent live concert performance of the much-excised score and his soloists throughout are excellent. I think that it’s best to think of them as an ensemble cast (a family as such) rather than as individual characters per se wherein there lies a strong sense of emotional retardation with adult children still calling their father
by the diminutive ‘Daddy’.

There is certainly a plethora of the psychological at play here. All vocal soloists perform extremely well and enough of that familiar bittersweet Bernstein melodicism survives to immediately identify the composer at work here. However, it’s darker – Bernstein linked to Weill and Blitzstein rather than the sunnier Broadway tunesmith with whom we’re probably more familiar. Let’s see whither it flies from here? Will it work as staged opera? Only time and audiences will tell.

Composer: Bernstein
Composition: A Quiet Place
Performer: Soloists, Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Kent Nagano
Catalogue Number: Decca 4833895 (2CD)

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