Making the Case for Bernstein’s A Quiet Place

18/03/2018

Bernstein, A Quiet Place: Soloists, Curtis Symphony Orchestra / Corrado Rovaris (conductor), Curtis Opera Theatre at the Perelman, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 9.3.2018. (RP)

Dennis Chmelensky in Curtis Opera Theatre’s A Quiet Place © Paula Court

Cast:

Sam – Tyler Zimmerman
Dede – Ashley Milanese
Junior – Dennis Chmelensky
François – Jean-Michel Richer
Funeral Director – Aaron Crouch
Doc – Vartan Gabrielian
Mrs. Doc – Anastasiia Sidorova
Susie – Sophia Fiuza Hunt
Analyst – Seongwo Woo
Bill – Patrick Wilhelm
Dinah – Sienna Licht Miller
Mourners – Adam Kiss, Hannah Klein, Daniel Taylor, Tiffany Townsend

Co-Production with Opera Philadelphia

Stage Director – Daniel Fish
Scenic Designer – Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer – Terese Wadden
Lighting Designer – Barbara Samuels
Video Designer – Jeff Larson

I prepared for the Curtis Opera Theatre’s A Quiet Place by listening to an exhilarating performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass from the 2012 London Proms. Mass bombed in 1971 when it premiered as part of the opening festivities for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had commissioned it, put on a brave face, but even her kind words couldn’t save the day. ‘Nothing but a bunch of goddamned hippie freaks’ pretty much summed up the reaction.

The Royal Albert Hall audience gave Mass the adulation that Bernstein craved for his only serious opera, but which it never received. The score and libretto have been reworked with almost every revival. In spite of the attempts to rehabilitate it, A Quiet Place may intrigue, but its infrequent, albeit much-heralded, appearances haven’t convinced. The plot is a tough one: the protagonists are less combative than George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but suicide and incest take up the slack.

A Quiet Place is the only one of Bernstein’s three ‘operas’ that I had not previously seen staged, although I have listened to the live recording of the 1986 Vienna production from time to time. Sitting in the theater, it dawned on me that all of the focus on it as a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti was dead wrong. It’s not a sequel to the stifling suburbia of 1950s America, but rather to Candide. I am not a Bernstein scholar, so perhaps somebody else has come to the same conclusion or can tell me that I am full of it, but A Quiet Place finally seemed to make some sense.

Candide, dismissed as ‘being too serious’, ends with the hope that ‘We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good. We’ll do the best we know. … And make our garden grow’. In A Quiet Place, the garden is a ruin and love has shriveled on the vine. We are back to the scene in Candide where the Governor sings, ‘Marriage is awful, you know. Passion is dead. Once it is lawful, you know’. Just imagine if he had to deal with alienated, ungrateful, dysfunctional children to boot.

Much of the problem rests with the libretto. Bernstein needed a stronger partner than Stephen Wadsworth, then still in his twenties, to coherently channel his creative juices. Even someone as formidable as Lillian Hellman couldn’t do it. It smacks of the pre-AIDS era when self-indulgence and self-absorption reigned in certain echelons of gay culture, at a time when many Americans were losing their jobs and suffering from the aftermath of record-high inflation. I can sympathize with the critic who wrote, ‘Its portentous and epic tone is wildly inappropriate’.

Curtis presented Garth Edwin Sunderland’s chamber version of the opera. He works for the Leonard Bernstein Office and oversees productions of the composer’s works around the world. It premiered in 2013 at the Konzerthaus in Berlin with the Ensemble Modern and Kent Nagano conducting. The result is a leaner, more focused work clocking in at around 100 minutes. Less sprawling and with some of the excesses excised, Sunderland’s version makes the best case to date for this vexing, problematic opera.

The production is simple and stark, eschewing most opportunities for hyperbole. The first scene is simply staged, a row of chairs for the mourners to occupy. They are grieving the alcohol-fueled, supposed suicide of Dinah, who once tended the garden. In the second scene, the family drama plays out against a projection of the Hindenburg in flames. Home movies of a woman in a white bathing suit frolicking in the surf and children twirling hula hoops are the backdrop for the tepid family hug that ends A Quiet Place.

The costumes are stabs at typical late-twentieth-century suburban garb. We first see Dinah (portrayed by Sienna Licht Miller) lolling about in a mink coat with Jackie O. sunglasses. She’s a mute specter, always present and performing sundry tasks such as gathering up a string of Christmas lights. It’s a nice touch when her daughter Dede wraps herself in the fur coat and finds a bit of comfort. Her brother Junior was decked out as if he was going to the Rocky Horror Picture Show instead of a funeral, redolent of the self-indulgence that Sunderland had largely excised.

Soprano Ashley Milanese was riveting as Dede. I was mesmerized by her nonchalance and the beautiful upper reaches of her voice. Dennis Chmelensky was no less commanding as Junior. He has pouting and insolence down pat, while his clear baritone is supple enough to portray the many facets of Junior’s troubled personality. They dominated the stage and created a simmering sibling sexual tension – not  actually incest, as Junior observes, since they were both adopted and unrelated.

It was a student production, so certain allowances must be made. Sam is a powder keg of pent-up frustration and bitterness, of which the fine bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman only scratched the surface. Tenor Jean-Michel Richer, a recent Curtis grad, was François, Junior’s lover, who married Dede to keep it all in the family. Smaller roles were vividly characterized, especially Aaron Crouch as the Funeral Director, Anastasiia Sidorova as Mrs. Doc and Tiffany Townsend as one of the Mourners.

If the plot can meander, Bernstein’s music never does, especially with Sunderland’s judicious pruning. There is a bit of self-parody with snippets of West Side Story woven into the score, as well as François singing, ‘What a day, what a day for a café au lait’. (I couldn’t help but think with the backdrop of the Hindenburg burning and the family self-combusting, the original words — auto de fé — from Candide were more apt.) The orchestra is itself a character in the opera, especially the solo trumpet that plays fragments of Dinah’s aria, ‘There is a garden’ from Trouble in Tahiti, throughout. Dinah doesn’t sing, but her song is heard.

Under the baton of Corrado Rovaris, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra played with precision, clarity and sensitivity. Bernstein’s sophisticated, colorful music simply shimmered. As in Opera Philadelphia’s recent Written on Skin, Rovaris displayed an exceptional ability to delineate the singing from a detailed, intriguing rendering of the orchestration that could almost stand on its own.

Bernstein attended Curtis, and A Quiet Place was a labor of love for all concerned, a commemoration of the centenary of his birth. It was also the first production of the newly established Curtis Opera Theatre at the Perelman, a collaboration between Curtis, Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Bernstein never much liked others tinkering with his works, but one has to imagine that he would have been chuffed by this effort.

Rick Perdian

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