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Fellows Perform Bernstein’s Last Opera


Elaine Daiber and the company of A Quiet Place (Hilary Scott photo)

When Stephen Wadsworth wrote to ask Leonard Bernstein for an interview in 1980, he added the teasing come-on “Interested in librettos?” Bernstein promised the requested interview if Wadsworth could set out a scenario for “a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti” over a weekend. Clearly the composer wished to contemplate a theatrical work that would continue the story of a young couple, Sam and Dinah, whose marriage confronted daily misunderstandings in the couple’s failure to talk frankly about their issues. This jazzy one-act opera, composed in 1952, features just the two principal characters and an ensemble (soprano, tenor, baritone) suggesting a trio singing advertising jingles on the radio.

For the sequel, which was eventually titled A Quiet Place (from a line sung by Dinah in the original), takes place some 30 years later. The single unseen child, “Junior,” of Trouble in Tahiti, has a younger sister, Dede, married to a Canadian named François, who was also Junior’s previous lover. The father, Sam, appears in the fullness of life, but his wife, Dinah, has just died. Indeed. A Quiet Place opens at her funeral.

Like earlier Bernstein works for the theater—notably the most operatic of his Broadway shows, CandideA Quiet Place had a difficult opening in Houston to quite diverse critical reaction. To make it more workable, the two operas that tell the story of Sam and Dinah’s wedding have been treated in different ways. At first Trouble in Tahiti was simply played as a prelude to A Quiet Place. But the musical style of the two is so different that the combination makes for a rather challenging coupling. In 1984 Bernstein and Wadsworth reworked the two operas into a single full-length, three-act stage piece fusing the two scores. Trouble in Tahiti was split into two parts that were inserted as flashbacks in Act II of the revised opera. This made the central act by far the longest in the opera. (Bernstein’s version can be seen in a Dutch staging—sung in English—HERE.) In many respects, it is essentially the definitive version of the opera, but it is long, large, and complicated, requiring a large stage and cast, as well as an orchestra of 72 players. Productions in anything but major opera houses would be impossible.

To make the essence of the opera available to smaller opera companies and organizations like conservatory opera programs, a new version was made in 2013 under the supervision of Garth Edwin Sunderland, with the approval of The Leonard Bernstein Office. It removes the passages from Trouble in Tahiti (though retaining a few orchestral references to some of Dinah’s yearning music in the last act), and returning to the score three arias from the final act that had been cut in the interest of time in the second version. The orchestral instrumentation is greatly reduced, to 18 instruments, bringing in the three acts in about an hour and three-quarters. At Tanglewood on Thursday, the show ran without intermission.

Designed for concert use Ozawa Hall stage contains no orchestra pit and no proscenium arch. Conductor Stefan Asbury closely packed the orchestra on stage left, with the singer’s opposite. Peter Kazaras, the stage director, provided the singers, on a mostly empty stage, with two screens for video projections, designed by Adam Larsen. Mary Lauve designed the. Sets consisted of minimal furniture, most elaborate in the funeral home scene of Act I, considerably reduced in the remaining acts, in which only the four members of the family appear.

The musical language of A Quiet Place sets off from an opening act of dissonant angry confrontations, eventually yielding to a long-sought warmth and understanding suggesting rays of unexpected sunshine.

The leading character is the bereaved father and husband, Sam (Ryne Cherry), whose wife Dinah has just died in an automobile accident. Other mourners, including their friends, have gathered at the funeral home. The suppressed conversation breaks into suggestions that she might have been drunk or perhaps committed suicide—suggestions whispered between Doc (Edward Vogel), Mrs. Doc (Kelly Newberry), and especially Susie, an outspoken friend of Dinah’s (Olivia Cosio), Moreover her Analyst (Alex Longnecker), mourner named Bill (Thomas West), and four unnamed mourners (Robin Steitz, Rebecca Printz, Chance Jonas-O’Toole, and William Socolof) persist in whispering among themselves about the circumstances, despite the efforts of the Funeral Director (Eric Finbarr Carey) to maintain decorum. With the exception of Sam, Dinah’s own family is not there. When they finally arrive late—Junior (Dominik Belavy), his married younger sister Dede (Elaine Daiber), and her husband François, who is also Junior’s former lover (Daniel McGrew)—the level of dissonance, both musical and psychological, increases. Sam, in a fury, vents his conflicting, extreme emotions in an aria attacking the three. The unstable Junior accuses his father of murdering Dinah. Their argument grows physical, eventually knocking shut the lid of Dinah’s coffin. When the rest of the family storms out, Junior is left surveying the scene.

The remaining two acts take place in the family home, with the locale identified in the videos. Only the four principles appear in the rest of the opera, which focuses intensely on their long history of family issues. Act II is largely cast as a series of duets ranging over different emotional levels. Sam and his daughter Dede read through diaries and letters left by Dinah. Sam realizes, almost for the first time, how unhappy she was in her marriage. François berates Junior for his behavior at the funeral. The causes him to undergo a psychotic episode where he summons up dark fantasies in which he claims to recall his father shooting him in childhood and his having an incestuous relationship with Dede. After François manages to get him to sleep, he and Dede have a duet in which he assures her firmly all that she means to him. Sam sees his sleeping son, but is unable to embrace him; instead he goes back to his room and reads Dinah’s last letter.

The last act takes place in the garden outside on a bright sunny morning. Dede is weeding Dinah’s garden and enjoying the sun. Junior enters and they reminisce about childhood games, breaking out in a laughing game of tag. (A sudden extended quotation by the orchestra of the finale of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is both a surprise and a suggestion that, despite all the painful challenges of the family’s life, moments of utter joy are still possible.) During their horseplay, François rushes into the arms of Sam, who embraces him for the first time as a member of the family. Sam asks François to read Dinah’s letter aloud to them all—a suicide note, in which she asks her family to “Accept, and live.” As they take this in, they begin to rock with laughter. Dede suggests they stay with Sam for a few days more but this generates an argument about who will sleep where, and François angrily tears up the letter because the family is so trapped in its old battles. The other three pick up the fragments of the letter and each finds meaning in the particular words of his or her fragment. Junior turns to his father, who, for the first time, accepts his son. François offers his hand to Dede, who gradually accepts it; then she turns to Sam and offers her hand to him. At last all four of the remaining family members have found their quiet place.

The cast of A Quiet Place, led by Maestro Stefan Asbury (Hilary Scott photo)

The arc of the drama progresses, despite missteps and backsliding, from the lack of understanding at the beginning to a new willingness to reform once again their long-lost connection as a family. Parallel to this is Bernstein’s score, which opens in dissonance and violent outbursts and progresses gradually and more-or-less straightforwardly to the bright and sun-filled conclusion. In this process, the four principal singers project their changing reactions with exceptional conviction.  In all this they were superbly supported by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and Stefan Asbury, who shaped both the orchestral and vocal sides of the stage with elegant control.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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