A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place is an American opera in three acts, with music by Leonard Bernstein to a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth. The work is a sequel to Bernstein's 1951 short opera Trouble in Tahiti. In its initial form A Quiet Place was in one act; the premiere, on June 17, 1983, was a double bill: Trouble in Tahiti, intermission, A Quiet Place. In its three-act form, which appeared in 1984, Act Two of A Quiet Place largely consists of Trouble in Tahiti in flashback.

Performance history and revisions[edit]

The first performance, attended by Bernstein, was on 17 June 1983 by the Houston Grand Opera.[1] After being panned by critics ("To call the result a pretentious failure is putting it kindly"),[2] Bernstein and Wadsworth withdrew the opera and revised it. Some scenes were cut, and Trouble in Tahiti was incorporated into the opera as a flashback, becoming (most of) the second act of the new three-act version. The revised version was given at La Scala, Milan and at Washington Opera in 1984.[3] The work was revised again and subsequently performed by the Vienna State Opera under the composer's baton in April 1986 with Wendy White as Dinah. These performances were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon for commercial release. The UK premiere was in December 1988 at the Corn Exchange Theatre, Cambridge, with the composer in attendance.[4]

In October 2010, New York City Opera presented the New York premiere of the revised work in a production by Christopher Alden.[5] In contrast to earlier responses, which had been lukewarm, Alden's production drew high praise from both critics and audiences.[6][7]

Synopsis[edit]

Prologue[edit]

A chorus sings scattered musical phrases such as "My Heart Shall Be Thy Garden", "Cakes and Friends We Choose With Care", and "Lost Time is Never Found". Some of these themes are repeated throughout the opera. Meanwhile, voices are heard in reaction to a car accident. The victim is Dinah, a wife and mother of two.

Act 1[edit]

Friends and family gather at Dinah's funeral. Among the guests are Dinah's brother (Bill), her best friend (Susie), her psychoanalyst, her family doctor and his wife (Doc and Mrs. Doc), and eventually her children (Dede and Junior). Sam, Dinah's widowed husband, stands immobile and isolated in a corner. People are absorbed in their own thoughts and aren't communicating well. In a series of fragmented conversations they discuss the circumstances of Dinah's death (the car accident from the prologue), mourn her loss and reveal some of what has happened to her family over the years. Dede and Junior live in Quebec with a French Canadian, François, who had been romantically involved with Junior, and is now married to Dede. Junior, who has a history of mental illness, has not seen his father in nearly 20 years, and Sam has never met his son-in-law.

When everyone except Junior has arrived, the funeral director announces a ceremony of readings and reminiscences. Doc reads from Proverbs, Mrs. Doc from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (lines chosen by Sam); Bill and Susie offer spirited reminiscences of Dinah; Dede reads from Kahlil Gibran — until she breaks down in tears and François must read for her. Junior's unruly entrance interrupts the ceremony, and no one greets him. At the conclusion of the readings the guests file past Dinah's coffin and depart, leaving Sam, Junior, Dede, and François facing one another for the first time.

Sam's first words are to Junior, but give way to an explosion of 30 years' anger, reprisal, and confused grief directed at all three young people. Sam breaks down crying, but no one goes to him. In a trio of reminiscence, Junior, Dede, and François recall — via half-remembered letters home — a long-ago time when they were close with their fathers. Junior breaks the spell of remembering with a snap and accosts his father violently. He starts to rhyme — a symptom of his psychosis — and goads Sam with an improvised strip blues. They come to blows, and the coffin lid is knocked shut with a crash. Sam exits furiously, then Dede and François. Junior, alone, becomes aware of his disarray and tenderly runs his hand across his mother's coffin.

Act 2[edit]

(Incorporating Trouble in Tahiti):

Scene 1

At home later that evening, Sam is alone in the master bedroom. Reading Dinah's old diaries makes him angry, but he also feels love for Dinah and realizes that he misses her. The diary evokes a memory of 30 years ago...

Scene 2

The scene opens with a scat singing jazz trio which advertises the charms of ideal family life in "Suburbia, U.S.A." of the 1950s. Various prosperous American suburbs are mentioned by name, including Wellesley Hills, Shaker Heights, Highland Park, and Beverley Hills.

In their "little white house", Young Sam and Dinah quarrel at breakfast. Among other issues, she accuses him of having an affair with his secretary at work. After ten years of marriage, every day is the same. They wish they could be kind to each other, but there is no real communication between them.

In his office Young Sam clinches a deal, making a business loan with his customary élan. The jazz trio extols his business acumen and big heart. On her psychiatrist's couch Dinah relates a dream; as she struggled to find her way out of a dying garden, a voice beckoned to her, promising that love would lead her to "a quiet place". Young Sam summons his (unseen) secretary to his office, pointedly asks if he has ever made any passes at her, and takes her quiet demurrals as acquiescence to his version of what happened.

At lunchtime, Young Sam and Dinah have a chance meeting on the street, in the rain. They both pretend to have lunch dates elsewhere, then wonder to themselves why they lied. What has happened, they ask themselves, to dull their love? Can't they find their way back to the garden where they began?

Scene 3

Old Sam's reverie is interrupted when Dede comes shyly to visit him. As they go through cartons and clothes in Dinah's closet, they start to reach out to each other. Next door in Junior's room, Francois confronts Junior with his behavior at the funeral parlor. François' anger provokes a psychotic phase that takes Junior through some painful associations to an important revelation — that he loves and needs his father. Meanwhile, Dede has tried on a dress which vividly recalls to Sam the young Dinah. Father and daughter embrace, Junior collapses in François' arms.

Dede and François meet in the hallway — she is elated, he is exhausted. Francois breaks down in her arms, overcome by the strain of the day, and Dede comforts him. He is moved by her strength and embraces her passionately. When they leave, Sam goes into Junior's room. He tries to kiss his sleeping son but can't yet: he's still too conflicted. He finds a sports trophy on a shelf, which reawakens his memory...

Scene 4

The scene opens as the jazz trio reprises its paean to the American suburban dream.

In that distantly remembered afternoon, rather than going to Junior's school play, Young Sam has competed for a handball trophy and won. As he showers he proclaims that there are some men, like himself, who are just born winners and some men "who will never, ever win".

Also avoiding Junior's play, Dinah goes to a movie — a trite Technicolor musical called Trouble in Tahiti. She finds it awful and describes it scene by scene, but is increasingly caught up in replaying the cornball plot, especially the big escapist musical number "Island Magic". Suddenly she returns to reality and rushes home to make dinner. Young Sam approaches his front door that night with his trophy, but with dread — even winners "must pay through the nose".

As the jazz trio sings of evening shadows and loved ones together, Young Sam and Dinah try to have a talk after dinner, but they cannot make any headway. Young Sam wearily suggests going to the movies — some new musical about Tahiti. Dinah ruefully agrees. Mourning the lost magic between them, they seek out the "bought-and-paid-for" magic of the silver screen.

Old Sam remembers...

Act 3[edit]

Dede is up early the next morning, weeding in her mother's once-splendid, now overgrown garden. She senses Dinah's unseen presence and speaks to her, remembering when they were close. Junior, in high spirits, appears with breakfast. Brother and sister play games remembered from childhood and reenact their parents' quarrelsome breakfasts. François joins them in the midst of a tag game, and in another trio of remembrance — for which time stands still - they relive the first meeting of Dede and François some 10 years before.

Now Old Sam appears in the garden and the game of tag resumes. It ends when Sam decides that rather than be tagged by François, he will open his arms to him and welcome him to the family. Sam reads aloud from Dinah's diary. The last entry he reads starts everyone giggling, and they release some of their sadness in shared laughter. The kids tell Sam they are thinking of staying on a few days, and all four euphorically imagine the joys of being together — until a little disagreement becomes a vicious argument. At its climax Junior hurls Dinah's diary into the air, and everything they have achieved since the debacle at the funeral parlor falls down around them. They stop, their anger spent, and look at the pages of the diary scattered on the ground. Thinking of Dinah and of her words, they recognize, one by one, that they can learn to communicate — indeed, that they must — as difficult as it will be for them. They reach out once again to one another.[8]

Roles[edit]

Role Voice type Premiere Cast,
17 June 1983
(Conductor: – John DeMain)
Sam baritone Chester Ludgin
Dinah, Sam's wife mezzo-soprano Diane Kesling
Dede, Sam and Dinah's daughter soprano Sheri Greenawald
Junior, Sam and Dinah's son baritone Timothy Nolen
François, Junior's boyfriend, later Dede's husband tenor Peter Kazaras
Sam as a young man baritone Edward Crofts

Recording[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Donal Henahan (1983-06-20). "Bernstein's 'Quiet Place' Opens in Houston". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  2. ^ Donal Henahan, ibid.
  3. ^ Bernard Holland (1984-07-24). "A Quiet Place by Bernstein, in Washington". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-06. 
  4. ^ Hayes, Malcolm, "First Performances: A Quiet Place" (March 1989). Tempo (New Ser.), 168: pp. 45-46.
  5. ^ DANIEL J. WAKIN, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/10/arts/music/10opera.html
  6. ^ Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/arts/music/29quiet.html
  7. ^ Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303362404575580163362072320.html
  8. ^ Wadsworth, Stephen (1986). A Quiet Place- CD Booklet. Deutsche Grammophon. pp. 13–16. 
  9. ^ Rimer, J. Thomas, "Recording Reviews: Nixon in China / A Quiet Place" (Autumn, 1994). American Music, 12 (3): pp. 338-341.