Last week’s New York City Opera premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place was a rousing success, judging both from audience reactions and an extremely favorable review in the Times. Director Christopher Alden was faced with a tremendous challenge in bringing together disparate material. For one thing, Bernstein’s wide-ranging musical language moves from huge romantic-sounding passages to a saucy (and tragically inappropriate) strip-blues—there are even quotes from Mendelssohn, TV slogans, and film music clichés, all of which had to somehow flow without losing focus from the central storyline—a not-more-dysfunctional-than-average American family’s search for peace and resolution in the wake of wife and mother Dinah’s untimely death.
The City Opera production also brought together disparate material in an altogether more fundamental sense: A Quiet Place, first produced in Houston as a 1983 sequel to Bernstein’s 1952 satire Trouble in Tahiti, was originally cast in two acts while this current City Opera production incorporates the whole of Tahiti as flashbacks within a new middle act.
The production’s principle challenges—the aforementioned need to reconcile different styles and music composed at different points in the composer’s life, as well as the need to maintain flow in a show that runs over three hours with intermissions. Alden’s production flows freely with no set changes within each act, and perhaps as a way to facilitate this quick pace the main characters and chorus are sometime used poetically rather than literally. The same suburban pink walls are used for the funeral parlor in the first act as well as the family’s house in the second, and in a decisive gesture even the outdoor garden scene in act three plays out with its swing set in a lonely, interior space bounded by the same unblinking pink walls. It’s a claustrophobic space but also one that seems almost too spacious, the antithesis of “cozy.”
Another directorial decision gave Dinah—the boozy but sensitive matriarch who spends all but the flashback scenes wandering the set as a ghost—a much more active role than the original production. For example, although an escalating quarrel caused Dinah’s coffin to slaw shut at her funeral, the NYCO production let’s Dinah do the honors, as if in disgust. In the third act she performs an even more direct dramatic function, picking up the torn pages of her old diary and placing particular pages in the hands of her living family members. Since the family members proceed to read off of said pages and then reach a (partial) reconciliation, this instance of Dinah’s role shifting from passive observer to active participant or even instigator felt funny to me. At first I admit it struck me as a form of the deus ex machina, but following several viewings this interpretation does work well dramatically, and as in the coffin-slamming incident it gives us insight into Dinah’s unvoiced reactions and intentions.
What hasn’t changed in the new production is Bernstein and Wadsworth’s overall conception: an attempt to deal honestly with a middle class family and the myriad personal and interpersonal struggles they face, and an attempt to deal honestly with two gay characters and the patriarch Sam’s eventual acceptance of them as part of the family. It’s likely these elements that were hard to swallow for the audiences and critics who panned the 1983 production more than any musical considerations; and strangely, perhaps it’s exactly the topical nature of the work that makes it feel so timely and engaging to today’s audience. That’s the trick to aging well: being ahead of one’s time!