OPERA REVIEW: “A Quiet Place” @ Tanglewood, 8/9/18 [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Fred Baumgarten
Photograph by Hilary Scott
The best way to appreciate Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera, A Quiet Place, is through the music. At Tanglewood in Lenox last week, this infrequently performed work was given a spirited defense by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and Vocal Fellows under the baton of Stefan Asbury, in a 2013 version with reduced orchestration. Legendary Bernstein protégé Michael Tilson Thomas was in the audience, a measure of the significance of the production.
Musically, the Tanglewood performance was a rousing success. The orchestra performed beautifully, and the singers were uniformly strong. Though often far less accessible than Bernstein’s beloved musical pieces such as West Side Story and Candide, the score to A Quiet Place reveals a composer at the height of mastery and maturity, a superb craftsman, confident in lyrical and dissonant styles alike. As theater, A Quiet Place is deeply problematic, and this Spartan production — a set consisting of some risers, chairs and projection screens — did little to overcome its flaws.
The opera was written in collaboration with the young librettist Stephen Wadsworth, after a rather pronounced dry spell in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and 32 years after Bernstein’s successful Trouble in Tahiti, to which A Quiet Place is a kind of sequel. Tahiti is a spare and darkly humorous portrait of postwar consumerist America. An all-American, outwardly successful couple, Sam and Dinah, confront the emptiness of their lives and marriage, finding refuge in a fictional fantasy movie, called “Trouble in Tahiti.” Along the way, a number of characters are referred to but never seen, including a son, Junior, Dinah’s psychiatrist and Sam’s business partners.