Classical CD Review: A Superb Version of Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place”

Garth Edwin Sunderland’s new chamber adaptation of this opera’s score, is, to date, the Bernstein Centennial Year’s best and most important recording.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Leonard Bernstein wrote five Broadway musicals but just two operas, both of which are related. The first, Trouble in Tahiti, is a sharp, satirical one-acter from 1952 that follows a day in the lives of Sam and Dinah, a couple trapped in a miserable marriage while apparently living the dream of affluent, post-war, suburban American life.

Its sequel, A Quiet Place, dates from the early 1980s and picks up the story thirty years later. The family’s a mess. Dinah’s dead in a car wreck, possibly of her own making. Her husband, Sam, is trying to make sense of things. Their kids, Junior and Dede, arrive late for the funeral with Francois, Dede’s husband and Junior’s former lover, in tow. Arguments and fisticuffs erupt. Then, as things start to settle down, children and father start to make efforts at a reconciliation, guided by a note from Dinah that advises to “accept or die…We’re Only Who We Are.” The ending of the opera is open-ended, but hopeful.

If that strikes you as bleak and brooding, well, it should: it is. A Quiet Place is, in some regards, a pretty tough nut. It’s sometimes difficult to sympathize with its characters and their situations. The opera’s libretto, written by Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth, isn’t exactly on par with da Ponte or von Hofmannsthal, let alone Bernstein’s earlier work with Betty Comden & Adolph Green and Stephen Sondheim (the chorus’s Act 1 observation, “What a fucked-up family,” is at once a jarringly banal and comically apt summation of its strengths and weaknesses). And Bernstein’s setting of the text, which is intentionally rooted in the American vernacular, can sit awkwardly.

But in Garth Edwin Sunderland’s new chamber adaptation of the score, out now in its debut recording on Decca, A Quiet Place takes on a new hue.

Sunderland reduced Bernstein’s big orchestra and tightened the opera’s storyline: Bernstein had revised the original one-act A Quiet Place after the mixed reception of its 1983 premiere in Houston to incorporate all of Trouble in Tahiti as a second-act flashback in a three-act restructuring of the opera for its 1984 European premiere at La Scala. His 1986 recording of that version at the Vienna State Opera is, as Sunderland rightly mentions in his liner notes, the definitive edition. Yet Bernstein evidently wasn’t satisfied with that one, either, and, shortly before his death in 1990, spoke of a reworking of the piece along the lines of the present recording.

The biggest improvement in Sunderland’s arrangement is A Quiet Place’s renewed focus on a broken family picking up the pieces of their lives in the aftermath of a sudden death. Much of Act 1 has been trimmed to eliminate superfluous characters who, in the original, appear at Dinah’s funeral and are subsequently never heard from again. Conversely, several arias that Bernstein had jettisoned in his revision have been restored and they serve to make the kids, if not quite agreeable, then at least not so off-putting. And excising Trouble in Tahiti, while that robs Bernstein’s score of some of its self-referential qualities, results in a run time for the opera (around 100 minutes) that far better fits the plot and characters than the previous version.

What you’re left with is sometimes gloomy, sure. But it’s a serious and honest reckoning with some of life’s most challenging questions, ones with which Bernstein and Wadsworth were closely familiar: when they wrote A Quiet Place in the early ‘80s, both were coming to terms with difficult losses – for Wadsworth, his sister; for Bernstein, his wife, Felicia. It’s perhaps the opera’s crowning achievement that its concluding scene feels neither tacked on nor preachy. Rather, it’s perfectly believable.

The present recording, which is led by Kent Nagano and features his Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM), is superb. Nagano’s tempos are generally a bit swifter than Bernstein’s 1986 recording of A Quiet Place (on Deutsche Grammophon) and, while there are moments when expansiveness might be called for (like in Junior’s Act 3 aria, “You see, Daddy”), this generally is a welcome thing. The OSM plays with verve and terrific color, navigating Bernstein’s complex rhythmic and harmonic textures with surety and also, in the score’s several allusions to other Bernstein works (notably Trouble in Tahiti and Candide), a good deal of wit.

Best of all: not once does Sunderland’s reduction of the ensemble come across as thin. His rescoring is entirely successful and, with its incisive clarity, actually seems to nudge A Quiet Place more in the direction of Kurt Weill-esque mid-20th-century musical theater (like The Threepenny Opera or Street Scene), which is, perhaps, where it belongs.

Casting is likewise strong.

Lucas Meachem’s Sam is full of bluster and fury – his Act 1 aria, “You shouldn’t have come,” is a show-stopper – but also a certain tenderness and depth. His concluding “I don’t know what this is,” at the end of which he finally embraces Junior, comes across rather more convincingly than Chester Ludgin’s account in Bernstein’s recording.

Claudia Boyle is an effervescent Dede, singing with brightness and agility, especially in Dede’s short, Act 3 aria, “Morning.”

Gordon Bintner’s Junior is about as sympathetic as you could expect. While his Act 1 “Merry Christmas to you” comes over a bit heavy-handedly, his Act 2 breakdown is strongly sung (if, in its recollections of incest, it’s plenty harrowing) and the Act 3 rapprochement with Sam done with delicate insightfulness.

Joseph Kaiser’s Francois is the opera’s surprising rudder, keeping the family from veering off after their darkest impulses. His character benefits the most from Sunderland’s revision, with several arias restored in acts two and three. Kaiser makes the most of them, singing with tonal purity and strength.

The recording, taped live last May in Montréal’s Maison symphonique de Montréal, is well-engineered and -balanced. Singers are front-and-center but never covered by the instrumental ensemble, which, for its due, never lacks for presence or detail. Audience noise and stage movements are minimal. In sum, then, this is, to date, the Bernstein Centennial Year’s best and most important recording.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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