Leonard Bernstein composed one of the greatest of all musicals in West Side Story, as well as, in Candide, one of the few 20th-century comic operas that is likely to persist in the repertory. But until the end of his life he kept trying to write the great American opera – something that would hold up a truthful mirror to American life in the second half of the 20th century. A Quiet Place, first performed in Houston in 1983, was his final attempt and also his last stage work. He and his librettist Stephen Wadsworth designed it as a sequel to Trouble in Tahiti, the jazzy, frothy one-acter he’d composed in 1952. Looking in on the same family 30 years on, the opera begins with the central character from the earlier work, Sam, struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife, Dinah, in a car crash.
When it was first performed, A Quiet Place was a four-scene one-acter using a large orchestra. But after its less than enthusiastic reception, Bernstein and Wadsworth revised the work, cutting some scenes and jettisoning subsidiary characters, as well as reworking the finale, and incorporating the whole of Trouble in Tahiti into the second act of what became, in 1986, a full-length, three-act opera. That was the version of the score that Bernstein recorded for Deutsche Grammophon the following year.
This new recording, though, offers a third possibility: a 2013 chamber reduction of the score by Garth Edwin Sunderland that scales down the orchestration while returning the opera to something much closer to Bernstein’s 1983 original conception. The three-act structure is preserved, but the Trouble in Tahiti music is omitted and some arias that were cut after the Houston premiere are restored. It is the shortest version so far, lasting just over 90 minutes.
Conducted with missionary fervour by Kent Nagano, who had worked with Bernstein on the 1986 premiere, the latest revision seems to bring A Quiet Place into sharper focus than its baggy predecessor. Whether it would seem convincing on stage is another matter – some passages of the snappy, vernacular dialogue still sit awkwardly. But the music is unmistakably intense, and intensely serious. Anyone hoping for the great melodic effusions of Bernstein’s Broadway shows will be disappointed: this is a very personal meditation on loss and its consequences, and Nagano’s cast – Lucas Meachem as the unswerving Sam, Gordon Bintner as his son Junior, and Claudia Boyle as his daughter Dede, with Joseph Kaiser as her husband Francois – make its seriousness very clear.