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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
A Quiet Place, opera in 3 acts (1986, chamber version by Garth Edwin Sunderland, 2013)
Dede - Claudia Boyle; François - Joseph Kaiser; Junior - Gordon Bintner; Sam - Lucas Meachem; Funeral Director - Rupert Charlesworth; Bill – Daniel Belcher; Susie – Annie Rosen; Doc – Steven Humes; Mrs. Doc - Maija Skille; Analyst - John Tessier
OSM Chorus/Andrew Megill
Orchestre symphonique de Montreal/Kent Nagano
rec. live, 17-19 May 2017, Maison symphonique de Montréal, Canada
DECCA 483 3895 [38:23 + 54:41]

In advance of the Bernstein centenary on 25th August 2018, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under its music director Kent Nagano has released the world première recording of Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place in Garth Edwin Sunderland’s chamber version. This recording was made at live concert performances given at Maison symphonique de Montréal in May 2017. Incidentally, Kent Nagano was introduced to Bernstein by conductor Seiji Ozawa in 1984 and went on to study with him until the composer’s death in 1990.

Bernstein’s final work for the stage, his three-act opera A Quiet Place to a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth, remains one of the composer’s lesser known large-scale works. A Quiet Place was conceived as a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein’s one-act opera premièred in 1952, for which he wrote both the music and the libretto. As with his celebrated musical West Side Story, it seems that the orchestration of A Quiet Place was undertaken by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal under Bernstein’s supervision. Premièred at Houston in 1983, A Quiet Place appeared as a single-act opera, employing a vast orchestra including synthesizer and electric guitar, on a double bill with a version of Trouble in Tahiti included. Dissatisfied, Bernstein revised A Quiet Place into a three-act opera, cutting material to accommodate Trouble in Tahiti in its entirety “as a flashback”, a version given in Milan in 1984 conducted by John Mauceri. After further revision, the opera was introduced under Bernstein at Vienna in 1986, and was recorded live for Deutsche Grammophon. Whilst the Vienna version is considered definitive, the Leonard Bernstein Office has, it seems, held the view that a more compact version of A Quite Place with a reduced chamber orchestration would ensure a greater intimacy of this very personal work. Nagano commissioned Garth Edwin Sunderland to prepare a new chamber adaptation. The result was orchestration pared-down to just eighteen players in the manner of a 1950s Broadway pit orchestra. Sunderland took out Trouble in Tahiti, concentrated more on the principal roles and restored some fine music cut from the 1984/1986 versions, including full arias for Sam and François.

Stephen Wadsworth’s libretto could be said to be semi-autobiographical. His sister Nina had died a year earlier in a car accident, and Bernstein's wife Felicia had died of cancer two years before. The plot centres around a dysfunctional family that gathers for Dinah’s funeral after a fatal crash from drunk driving. It has at its core the father Sam’s troubled relationship with his gay son, a Vietnam draft-dodger. Garth Edwin Sunderland explains: “At its heart, A Quiet Place is the story of a father and his children grappling with their history of bitterness and anger, and ultimately attempting tentatively to overcome it.”

The basic flaws in A Quite Place, whether in the 1986 opera version or this pared-down musical adaptation, are the static nature of the dour plot and the lack of beauty and memorability of the melodies. Those expecting the same adventures as in the comic operetta Candide, or the sheer entertainment of the musicals West Side Story and Wonderful Town, will be sadly disappointed. This domestic-themed work is predominantly dialogue. Act one feels particularly tedious, and is almost at its end before we hear what could be described as an aria. Claims have been made for the excellence of the act-two prelude, which in truth I find hard to fathom. Nevertheless, the well-chosen cast of soloists and small orchestra are in glorious form, barely putting a foot wrong. Canadian bass-baritone Gordon Bintner excels in the role of Junior. He demonstrates impressive intonation and expression and excellent projection. His aria You see, Daddy with Bintner stands out; he exercises great care for the text. What a pleasure it is to hear the Irish soprano Claudia Boyle in the part of Dede. I especially enjoyed the clarity and lovely vocal purity she produces. She floats her high notes with ease, particularly successfully in aria Morning. One senses that she is living the role. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser is compelling as François, notably with his two big arias I’ve been afraid and Stop, You will not take another step! He displays clarity, good expression and an abundance of passion, but seems somewhat less comfortable in his high register. Made for the role of Sam is American baritone Lucas Meachem, blessed with a warm, attractive voice. Sam has three significant arias You’re Late!, I wish I could sleep and Oh, François please, and Meachem conspicuously conveys sincerity to the meaning of the text.

Kent Nagano draws satisfying playing from Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, adroitly creating a stifling atmosphere that feels totally appropriate to tension in the family. No problems whatsoever with OSM Chorus, clearly well drilled by Andrew Megill. The sound engineers give the live concert performances clarity and an excellent balance between voice and orchestra. Setting the standard with its splendid presentation, the CD case includes a booklet with several enlightening essays and a synopsis. In addition, there is a separate booklet containing a libretto.

Michael Cookson

 

 




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