Review: "A Quiet Place" by Leonard Bernstein at the Paris Opera

PARIS – “We are going to listen to music that describes emotions – feelings like pain, happiness, loneliness, anger, love”, Leonard Bern...


PARIS – “We are going to listen to music that describes emotions – feelings like pain, happiness, loneliness, anger, love”, Leonard Bernstein said once during an episode of his beloved and televised “Concerts for Young People”.

“I guess most music is like that,” he added. “And the better it is, the more it will make you feel those emotions that the composer felt when he was writing.”

Bernstein was presenting Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, but he might as well have been talking about his own music — even his dark and thorny last opera, “A Quiet Place.” With a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth, this play had a tortured history, struggling to find its form before and after its premiere in 1983. It was heavily criticized, and revised many times, culminating in 2013 with a version by Garth Edwin Sunderland it might give this work – in a genre that Bernstein eluded – a brighter future.

This version, radically rethinking the play’s dramaturgy and orchestration, has again been modified for the Paris Opera, giving the Sunderland edition its most striking staging to date in a new production that open on wednesday at the Palais Garnier.

In the person of conductor Kent Nagano, the production includes the best world champion of “A Quiet Place”, who recorded the version of Sunderland several years ago and directs it again to a brilliant and illuminating effect. And in director Krzysztof Warlikowski he has one of the European scene’s most intelligent interpreters of family dysfunction and sexual complexity, the central themes of the opera.

At the end of Act II, Warlikowski adds a scene in which a boy sneakily watches this episode of “Concerts for Young People” after his parents have fallen asleep. And at its best, the work gives you what Bernstein described on television: the ability to make you feel the emotions he had when he was writing a sometimes painfully personal opera. It remains full of flaws – mostly cliches of mid-twentieth century American boredom – but in its present form it is also a piece of subtlety and suggestion, a short story with the weight of a novel, an example of masterful craftsmanship and postmodern style.

“A Quiet Place” – the story of a matriarch’s death and the reconciliation it brings to her broken family, inspired by Bernstein and Wadsworth’s own losses – was originally created as a sequel to the satirical and jazzy in one act “Trouble in Tahiti” by Bernstein. from the early 1950s; they were first introduced together as a double bill of punitive length. Bernstein and Wadsworth revised “A Quiet Place” into a unique three-act work, with “Trouble in Tahiti” incorporated as flashbacks. This, too, made for a pumped-up evening, long and in a maximalist score for over 70 musicians, including electric guitar and synthesizer.

Sunderland’s version is lighter in every way. He removes “Trouble in Tahiti”, whose bitter effervescence clashes gracelessly with the thorniness of “A Quiet Place”, and reduces certain characters while widening others, reinstating cut tunes. He re-orchestrated the score for just 18 players, and the running time was reduced to around 90 minutes, with no intermission.

For the Paris Opera, Sunderland kept it short but fleshed out the instrumentation – a Goldilocks medium between 18 and 72 musicians – including added winds and brass, as well as a harpsichord and an organ, which gives weight and naturalism at the funeral of Act I without sacrificing the clarity of the 2013 version. The electric guitar and synthesizer, which inevitably evoke the 1980s, are thankfully gone.

To further avoid appearing dated, Warlikowski’s staging, although set in 1983, is not a facsimile of its time. It takes place in a single room, facing each other, with imposing walls and decors that are both familiar and impossible to place: the fashions of that time, surrounded by sleek and futuristic panels. Spaces like these – designed by Warlikowski’s frequent collaborator Malgorzata Szczesniak, and typical of his productions – can seem both vast and stuffy, and his characters tend to behave accordingly, both exposed and entrapped. .

Warlikowski is otherwise largely respectful of the libretto – with some touching interventions. Dinah, half of the unhappy couple from “Trouble in Tahiti”, is not in “A Quiet Place”, which begins with her funeral. But Warlikowski assigns the part to a mute actress (Johanna Wokalek), and she haunts the scene throughout, in a mixture of time and memory that mirrors the non-sequences of the libretto’s slides into daydreaming and role-playing.

It’s one of the many ways Dinah is featured in this production, which opens with a video (by Kamil Polak) of her fatal car crash – likely suicide, almost certainly under the influence – and, for the heartbreaking postlude music of Act I projects a portrait of her above the coffin and the crematorium. She is the face of the post-World War II American ideal, but with the blank expression and double-edged smile from a painting by James Rosenquist.

Dinah and her husband, Sam – the remarkable, delicate baritone Russell Braun with a wide emotional range of pain, anger and aimlessness – had two children. One is Junior, gay and mentally ill (bass-baritone Gordon Bintner, elegant in his rage and terrifyingly evocative “Dear Evan Hansen” in its constant visible neuroses); the other, Dede (Claudia Boyle, a soprano who became familiar with the role as the evening progressed).

A new member of the family is François, the husband of Dédé (Frédéric Antoun, tense at the height of the opera), whom she met through her former lover, Junior. If that suggests incestuous behavior, wait: we learn that Junior and Dede also experimented with each other as children.

Junior walks into the funeral in a garish pink and purple cowboy outfit – a choice that later makes sense when he is depicted as a boy wearing the same costume, restrained and then rejected by his mother. The confusion of madness and homosexuality in opera has long been one of his problems, but Warlikowski helps slightly by treating Junior’s homosexuality as coincidental with, rather than the cause of, his arrested development. Other things that have aged badly, however, are integrated into the text; Dinah’s miserable alcoholism is more worthy of sighs than sympathy.

More innovative American operas were created in the 1980s: Philip Glass’s portrait of resistance in “Satyagraha”; or the great, almost mythical treatment of rulers in Anthony Davis “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and at John Adams “Nixon in China.” “A Quiet Place” wins by no longer being so directly juxtaposed with them; it’s now easier to meet on your own terms, neither avant-garde nor as eager to please as Bernstein’s earlier works.

And while it can sometimes feel like a rote regurgitation of post-war culture and its miseries, the ambiguous ending is something of a break from those clichés. In Warlikowski’s staging, Bernstein’s tough final chords accompany an image of Dinah’s family sharing a sofa. The only way forward for them is forgiveness – not the most common way for an opera to end, but a memory of a classic: “Jenufa” by Janacek.

Take a good look at the four: Sam and Junior, together; Francis; and Dédé, who moves away, visibly uncomfortable, from her husband. They still suffer, in a cycle that you could see continuing into the present day. The quintessentially American darkness of “A Quiet Place” is perhaps more relevant than we think.

A silent place

Until March 30 at the Paris Opera; operadeparis.fr.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: "A Quiet Place" by Leonard Bernstein at the Paris Opera
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