It's the midway point of New York's opera season, and the other day, while I was crossing Lincoln Center Plaza, I suddenly realized something: of all the staged productions I've attended since September, only one has really made any impression on me — New York City Opera's new Christopher Alden production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth's A Quiet Place.
This was the first time I'd heard the opera onstage; I had become interested in it, years ago, on the basis of the 1986 Deutsche Grammophon recording. Back then, I thought it was a fascinating mess. I still think so. Parts of Wadsworth's libretto — particularly parts of the ending — are painful, like undigested thoughts and memories thrown out randomly in a therapy session. I can understand why my companion denounced the whole thing as "dreck." And I don't think that it quite works to integrate Trouble in Tahiti into the middle of the work. I grasp the idea of a simpler time versus a more complex one, but it seems to me that Trouble in Tahiti simply interrupts the spell cast by Act I of A Quiet Place and reminds us that it has better tunes than the later work.
And yet — the damned thing moved me even more than it did when I first listened to the recording all those years ago. Bernstein contributed some wonderful writing to A Quiet Place — the warring eighth and sixteenth notes of the strings do a marvelous job of conveying Sam's tormented state of mind, and I love the oddball harmonies of the trio "Dear Daddy" and the prelude to the final act. I think Bernstein and Wadsworth must have felt a mutual need to create a tribute to the American family in all its inarticulate glory. A Quiet Place is no well-made musical play: it's much closer to a Robert Altman movie, showing the way real families function — we miss each other's points, say the opposite of what we mean, don't notice when people are reaching out to us. At the time of its unveiling, The New Yorker's Andrew Porter was one of the few critics who understood this.
I think A Quiet Place means even more to me now because it's really about something we can all understand. It isn't a dry literary transcription of a book we were forced to read in high school or college. It's a real, American, contemporary story — something that's always a rarity on the opera stage. Perhaps if it had been more successful originally, its example might have led to more of the same. Perhaps not: it's amazing how insistently the world has ignored the example set by Bernstein, in so many ways.
I don't know what Stephen Wadsworth thought about this production. He's a fine stage director himself, so I'm sure he had strong opinions about it. I couldn't help thinking, however, that Alden had made an excellent case for the piece. I gasped when the lights came up on Andrew Lieberman's funeral home set at the beginning: everything looked exactly how it should have looked, to the degree that I was deeply uncomfortable.
It's probably too much to expect an NYCO revival anytime soon, but kudos to the company for having taken a chance on it at least once.