W hen Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place made its debut in Houston in 1983, critics slapped it down as the work of an overreaching celebrity who confused artistic seriousness with existential grimness. Bernstein had recycled Trouble in Tahiti, his 1952 bagatelle about a toxic suburban marriage, and pasted on a lengthy sequel that takes place a dozen years later. The jump from the clever wordplay and pop-inflected jauntiness of the first act to the portentous modernism and jagged vernacular of the second proved lethal. So did the characters’ impressive catalogue of talk-show-ready pathologies. The Times dismissed the whole contraption as “heavy-breathing but barely alive.” Before the production moved on to Milan, Washington, and Vienna, Bernstein and his librettist Stephen Wadsworth rejiggered and rewrote, framing Trouble in Tahiti as a pair of extended flashbacks. The salvage operation helped the opera, but not its reputation: A Quiet Place became one of Bernstein’s mythic failures, and for a generation its faults had to be taken on faith, since so few people had actually seen it.
Now New York City Opera is presenting the piece as a victim of neglect, bad timing, and abuse. How, after all, could the only full-blown music drama by a great New Yorker never have played New York? And rescuing the opera might also do some good for the company, which, like the family in A Quiet Place, is groping its way back to stability and peace.
It takes nerve to burden such a resolutely pessimistic show with that cargo of hope. The opera makes no room for elation, or even the cathartic balm of tragedy. Characters struggle to communicate, and Bernstein keeps the score in a constant state of disintegration. Doo-wop choruses, regular syncopations, lyric melodies, stretches of rigorously modernist dissonance—these touchstones crumble on contact with the characters’ ambivalence. Yet after nearly 30 years of oblivion, Bernstein’s problem child turns out to have had all along what so many more-successful recent operas lack: a powerful, compelling personality. All it needed to let its qualities emerge was time—plus a taut new production by Christopher Alden, a sharp and committed cast, and City Opera’s collective passion.
The curtain rises on a funeral. Dinah has died in a car accident. Sam, her husband of 40 years, sits in shock. His silence brings out the surrounding mourners’ petty hostilities and a flood of gnarled, expressionistic music. Soon the younger generation saunters in late: Sam and Dinah’s daughter, Dede; her husband, François; and her brother, Junior, who is adopted, gay, intelligent, fragile, and unstable. Depending on how much you believe of what Junior says, it seems that both siblings and François have all slept with one other. Intermission comes almost as a relief.
In Act Two, Sam discovers Dinah’s diary, and a couple of bitter entries lead us into the past, where we see Sam and Dinah bickering over breakfast. We’re in Trouble now, but Alden’s direction and Jayce Ogren’s insightful conducting lash the parts together so convincingly that we can forget their separate origins. Andrew Lieberman’s salmon-colored salon, with white columns and moldings, sets off the roiling score with gemütlich neoclassicism. The characters move through this spare set in a depressive fury that is only reinforced by the vibrancy of their singing. Christopher Feigum turns the younger Sam into an American toreador, a bully in pinstripes who lords it over colleagues and shuts up his wife with orotund baritone barks. Louis Otey sings an older but no more mature version of the same man: defeated now, but still angry, still selfish, still proud of his beautiful voice.
Somehow, the two eras in which Bernstein wrote the opera have melded. Fifties Broadway rattles through the Tahiti parts like distorted scraps heard in a dream, and the material written a generation earlier embraces plenty of modernist discontent. As a stand-alone show, Trouble in Tahiti was no light domestic parody. The title comes from a rickety musical that Dinah pans in the hilariously caustic showstopper “What a Movie,” during a wry, tuneful screed against suburban affluence, showbiz clichés, toxic parenting, hollow marriages, and corporate gladiatorial combat. The flashbacks refuse to halo the past: The unhappiness of yesterday illuminates today’s gloom. Life sucks, just as it always has and ever will, amen.
If Bernstein’s attack on American domestic complacency seemed out of step in the early eighties, it feels timelier today, when we treat dysfunction as a form of entertainment. We know Sam and Dinah: They are Don and Betty in Mad Men, Frank and April in Revolutionary Road—the Adam and Eve of suburban conjugal misery. A few days before A Quiet Place opened here, HBO’s sublimely claustrophobic series In Treatment, about a psychotherapist and his patients, introduced Jesse, who is an iPhone-fondling, millennial-Brooklyn version of Junior.
As with so much that Bernstein touched, A Quiet Place is lavishly imperfect. When it goes wrong, it does so with panache. Long and relentless, it’s loaded down with exposition and fortissimo angst. But if Bernstein’s hand is heavy, it is also deft. The third and final act finds Dede communing with her absent mother in Dinah’s overgrown garden. Sarah Jakubiak, dressed in sweats and perched atop an old swing set, sings the ravishing aria with poignant simplicity, and the scene recalls all those other regretful child-women in opera, delivering their arias from balconies and parapets. Except that Dede can’t indulge in madness, suicide, or some desperately self-sacrificing gesture: She has a family to heal.
In the final minutes, Bernstein manages to eke out some consolation. The surviving family members proffer their separate thoughts (with contributions from Dinah’s ghost). Mustering enormous skill and with a nod to Mozart, Bernstein gathers these gnarled threads of love, fear, and resentfulness into a shimmering ensemble while still keeping the characters distinct. Airy, sunlit harmonies, a familiar echo from an earlier chapter in the composer’s life, reassure us that somewhere there’s a place for these cracked souls. Just now, that’s City Opera, the nurturing haven that American opera needs.
A Quiet Place
By Leonard Bernstein.
New York City Opera.
Through November 21.