22 June 2018

CD REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein — A QUIET PLACE (C. Boyle, J. Kaiser, G. Bintner, L. Meachem, R. Charlesworth, D. Belcher, A. Rosen, S. Humes, M. Skille, J. Tessier; DECCA 483 3895)

IN REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein - A QUIET PLACE (DECCA 483 3895)LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990): A Quiet Place [Edition by Garth Edwin Sunderland]—Claudia Boyle (Dede), Joseph Kaiser (François), Gordon Bintner (Junior), Lucas Meachem (Sam), Rupert Charlesworth (Funeral Director), Daniel Belcher (Bill), Annie Rosen (Susie), Steven Humes (Doc), Maija Skille (Mrs. Doc), and John Tessier (Analyst); Chœur et Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano, conductor [Recorded in Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada, 17 – 19 May 2017; DECCA 483 3895; 2 CDs, 93:05; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING OF SUNDERLAND’S EDITION]

The roads leading to the world’s important opera houses are strewn with the carcasses of musical vehicles scuttled before they reached their destinations, parts tried and discarded in the process of revising scores, and the abandoned ambitions of works that never realized their potential. Even among pieces that found success, there are plethoras of questions with no definitive answers. Should a mezzo-soprano or a tenor Idamante be preferred in Mozart’s Idomeneo? Should Bizet’s Carmen be performed with spoken dialogue or sung recitatives? Should Verdi’s Don Carlos be sung in four or five acts; and in French or Italian? Is Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess more at home in a Broadway theatre or an opera house? Now, nearly two decades after his death, how is Leonard Bernstein’s legacy as an operatic innovator fairly assessed?

Since its inception, qualms about the work’s theatrical viability have largely banished Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place to the pages of academic studies of the composer’s œuvre, the few productions that the score has received in the thirty-five years since the première of its original form having mostly failed to meet the opera’s goals of further examining and refining the themes addressed in Bernstein’s 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti. In the earlier work, audiences met Dinah and Sam, a couple bound in a complicated marriage that produced a son who was more a possession to be inventoried than a tangible manifestation of love. Integrating Trouble in Tahiti into its second act as a series of reminiscences, the three-act version of A Quiet Place that Bernstein conducted at the Wiener Staatsoper in 1986, pacing performances that were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, opens with the aftermath of Dinah’s death in a car accident. The tyke in Trouble in Tahiti, Junior, was joined in the time between the operas by a sister, Dede, whose husband François was previously Junior’s lover. Each member of the family loves and is loved but has never learned to express feelings more intimate than frustration. Perhaps this is the crux of the opera’s difficulties: how can a composer who made lines as seemingly banal as ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ not only integral to a piece’s dramatic continuity but also an indelible episode in American musical history effectively convey the sometime futility of words?

That he returned after an absence of thirty years to the dysfunctional family at the core of Trouble in Tahiti indicates that these people and their mostly self-inflicted struggles clearly captivated Bernstein. First devised by the composer and his chosen librettist, Stephen Wadsworth, in a single, two-hour act, A Quiet Place was a departure from the charm and romance of West Side Story and Candide. Considerably more convoluted than the straightforward love against the odds of West Side Story’s María and Tony, the relationships at the heart of A Quiet Place triggered profound responses from both composer and librettist, described in detail in Wadsworth’s insightful liner notes for the Deutsche Grammophon recording.

...we discovered a coincidence of need - to write about loss, grief, family mourning, and coming through tragedy together. Lenny had lost his wife, Felicia, only two years before, to cancer. I had lost my sister Nina only one year before, in a car crash. These things weighed heavily on our souls.
It is gross exaggeration to assert that the incarnation of A Quiet Place performed in Vienna in 1986 and recorded by DGG attempted to conflate the intimacy of Idomeneo with the grandeur of Götterdämmerung, but there is a certain legitimacy in the gist of the hyperbole: the impact of the stark simplicity of the distinctly American family dynamic that is the lifeblood of A Quiet Place was diminished by the necessity of matching the drama with music of auditorium-filling dimensions.

Recorded with exceptional sonic clarity in Maison symphonique de Montréal, this DECCA recording of A Quiet Place utilizes an arrangement of the score prepared by The Leonard Bernstein Office Vice President for Creative Projects Garth Edwin Sunderland, first performed in Konzerthaus Berlin in 2013 under the direction of Kent Nagano, whose conducting is a vital component of the success of this performance. Engendered by career-long acquaintance with the composer’s work, as well as his mastery of a related piece like Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, with which A Quiet Place shares an emphasis on the Existential implications of interpersonal relationships, Nagano’s informed handling of Bernstein’s music lends Sunderland’s arrangement of A Quiet Place an aura of authority. Bernstein possessed one of the Twentieth Century’s best-trained ears for reimagining orchestral colors and textures, and Nagano’s management of the intricately-constructed tonal strands, spellbindingly executed by Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, unearths and enlivens the wealths of musical ingenuity and emotional power that the score wielded from the start of Bernstein’s and Wadsworth’s operatic alliance.

Reduced from the 150 minutes heard in Vienna in 1986 to ninety-three minutes, principally by excising flashbacks of Trouble in Tahiti from Act Two, the opera here moves at a fast pace that suits the episodic nature of the drama. Paralleling the work of their orchestral counterparts, the expert singing of Chœur symphonique de Montréal combines close adherence to the score’s pitches and rhythms with convincing conversational immediacy. The communicative effectiveness of Bernstein’s writing for groups of voices is enhanced by Sunderland’s treatment of the intersections among instruments and voices, and Nagano’s conducting spotlights subtleties always present in the opera but less evident in previous performances.

In the orchestral Postlude that ends Act One of A Quiet Place, Bernstein unleashed a torrent of the destructive but liberating familial angst that permeates Mozart’s Idomeneo, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Wagner’s Die Walküre, and Nagano fully capitalizes on the music’s innate poignancy. Lyrical passages emerge from the manic pages of the score like lulls in storms of grief, given space in which to develop organically. A Quiet Place was unquestionably a masterful work at its 1983 première, and Sunderland’s intelligent restructuring of its words and music make it more accessible. With this performance, Nagano confirms that A Quiet Place is one of the most beautiful, unique, and moving operas of the Twentieth Century.

During his career, Bernstein was fortunate—far more fortunate than many of his contemporaries in musical theatre and opera—to enjoy collaborations with artists who understood, respected, and shared his ideals. Supporting rôles in this performance of A Quiet Place are brought to life by singers who exhibit qualities similar to those that defined the work of vocalists with whom Bernstein worked closely. Tenor John Tessier’s bel canto credentials might seem an over-qualification for the Analyst’s music in A Quiet Place, but his proper placement of vowels, rhythmic precision, and intonational accuracy are as welcome in Bernstein’s vocal lines as in Bellini’s. Similarly, the techniques of bass Steven Humes and mezzo-soprano Maija Skille are deployed with style and sensitivity in their portrayals of Doc and Mrs. Doc. The vocal acting of intrepid mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen amplifies the importance of Susie’s every word and note, lending the character added substance. Baritone Daniel Belcher’s Bill is also a fully-characterized depiction, sung with burnished tone and verbal lucidity. The Funeral Director receives from tenor Rupert Charlesworth a performance that gives the character unexpected dimensions of credibility and empathy. Each of these singers devotes to Bernstein’s music the vocal charisma and emotional honesty that it deserves.

The voice of tenor Joseph Kaiser is an instrument of finer quality than any listener might ever have hoped to hear in Bernstein’s music for François, the unknown variable of sorts in A Quiet Place’s family equation. First Junior’s lover and then Dede’s husband, François is the outsider who, despite his close involvement in their affairs, is able to discern the family’s shortcomings. Casting Kaiser in the rôle astutely intensifies the contrasts among François and both Junior and Sam, his higher, leaner timbre sounding almost fragile in comparison with the voices of his in-laws. In his every utterance in Act One, Kaiser is anything but feeble, however, his agile, attractive voice dominating the angular writing with ease except at the extreme top of the range, where effort is audible. Those hints of effort are put to apt dramatic use: like the family into which he inserted himself, François falls victim to his own insecurities, portrayed by Kaiser with touching verisimilitude. This is implicitly evoked in François’s Act Two aria ‘I’ve been afraid,’ passionately sung by Kaiser as a genuinely self-searching expression of endearment.

The tenderness that often glows in Kaiser’s vocalism calms the tempestuous egos that explode in the opera’s charged atmosphere. There is an alluring Mozartian fluidity in his account of the Act Three aria ‘Dear Loved Ones,’ the reading of Dinah’s suicide note that was originally assigned to Junior and is here the song of a Twentieth-Century Idamante brokering a delicate peace. Fulfilling his destiny as the catalyst for reconciliation and healing, Kaiser’s François launches his aria ‘Stop! You will not take another step!’ with the conviction of exasperation, but the sense that he is at last being heard softens the steel of his delivery. As the shared lover of troubled siblings, François is a character who can seem calculating and opportunistic, but, singing with gleaming tone and sincerity, Kaiser infuses François with nobility that figuratively provides the quiet place in which the drama achieves resolution.

It is not difficult to imagine Kaiser’s thoughtful François having been infatuated with the Junior of bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. Even when careening towards psychiatric cataclysm, this Junior is mesmerizing and, more consequentially, obviously redeemable. There is no denying that the Junior who bursts into Act One with the vehemence of a rabid animal exhibits few signs of reclaimable sanity, but Bintner evokes sympathy for the errant son by voicing his lines with a pervasive suggestion of inevitability, demonstrating that Junior’s rants are symptoms of illness, not true depravity. In the disturbing scene in which Junior disrupts his mother’s funeral with a shocking strip tease, Bintner adopts a garish but pitiable manner that suits the frenzied music and further exposes the fractures in the man’s mental state. By casting a singer with a strong, sinuous voice as Junior, his kinship with Sam is rendered both more believable and more meaningful.

The pathetic state of Junior’s mental health becomes sickeningly apparent in the vaudevillian scene in Act Two in which he invents a harrowing tale of an incestuous youthful relationship with Dede, mercilessly taunting François and goading his family to conflict. Bintner traverses this jazz-tinged music with flamboyance, purring his untoward accusations with something of Chet Baker’s sangfroid. None of the vocal effects that Bintner employs for dramatic variety distorts the singer’s pitch, but his characterization is immeasurably enriched: like Kaiser’s François, Bintner’s Junior, engrossingly sung, is an atypically plausible persona. Spanning the psychological metamorphoses of Act Three with acuity that culminates in a commanding performance of the aria ‘You see, Daddy, that death does bring some relief,’ Bintner persuasively evinces Junior’s ultimate transformation from bitter man mired in childhood inhibitions to better man on the path to recovery.

Building upon her colleagues’ erudite embodiments of their parts, soprano Claudia Boyle uplifts this performance of A Quiet Place with a portrayal of Dede that is capably sung—no small feat—and refreshingly free of cliché. The wide intervals and placement of tones without facile approach demanded by Dede’s music, much of which prefigures very different but equally difficult rôles like Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and Pip in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, are unflappably supplied by Boyle. Her voice soars above the stave, but she also negotiates tricky passages in the lower octave with aplomb. Boyle voices Dede’s Act One arietta ‘Fantastic, great!’ with a piercing irony that is unmistakably limned by the slightly acidic edge with which she projects her tones. Dede plays the rôle of the more stable of Sam’s children (and François’s partners), but she is not without idiosyncrasies and indiscretions. Still, Boyle never allows the young woman’s flaws to obscure her basic humanity, her vocalism as reassuringly lovely when the text is thorny as when her words are comforting.

The trio with Junior and François and the scene in Act Two in which Dede at least momentarily connects with her father whilst donning one of Dinah’s dresses are pinnacles in Boyle’s performance, her voice arrayed in primary colors for the confrontational sparring and in pastel hues for intermittent tranquility. Occasional shrillness, dramatically appropriate, illustrates Dede’s awkwardness, especially in exchanges with François. The ambivalence of Sam’s and Dinah’s marriage is echoed in Dede’s relationship with François, and Boyle affectingly articulates her character’s indecision. The soprano sings the Act Three aria ‘Morning’ incisively, the text garnering as much attention as the music. Dede can be portrayed as a petulant shrew, but Boyle tames her, seizing each of the score’s inherent opportunities to chart the progress of her emotional evolution.

The husband and father at the center of the opera’s drama is portrayed in this performance with a myriad of temperamental contradictions by granite-voiced baritone Lucas Meachem. The first impression made by his Sam is one of unstinting strength, the core of iron in his singing introducing an element of stereotypical machismo into his depiction of the stern father. Meachem quickly divulges that Sam’s bravado is a coping mechanism that masks a vulnerability that is exacerbated by the father’s damaged relationships with his children. The character’s gruff exterior crumbles when platitudes are not adequate to express his feelings, and the baritone’s singing is most memorable when Sam’s hopelessness is most exposed. Throughout Act One, Meachem alternates boldly handsome singing with vocalism of unnerving sweetness, his account of the aria ‘You’re late’ a manifestation of Sam’s inability to grant his children access to his innermost emotions.

Grappling with the anger, denial, and uncomfortable truths forced to the surface by Dinah’s death, Sam begins Act Two with the aria ‘I wish I could sleep,’ delivered by Meachem with a wide spectrum of vocal colors ranging from darkest despair to glowing embers of self-recrimination. Here and elsewhere in this performance, the world-weariness of Meachem’s singing unveils a link between the small-scaled situations of A Quiet Place and the macrocosms of Wagner’s Ring. Singing with galvanizing resolve, Meachem reveals in Sam a suburban Wotan, his Fricka gone but still omnipresent and his children, not unlike Sieglinde and Siegmund, embroiled in futile combat against fate. In Meachem’s performance, Sam’s aria in Act Three, ‘Oh, François, please,’ is an outcry of desperation. Freud would likely theorize that, as an amorous partner for Dede and Junior, François is a stand-in for Sam, a father figure with whom they share a long-desired affection. In the wake of François’s rebuke and cathartic destruction of Dinah’s letter, the humility with which Meachem’s Sam welcomes François to the family proposes that he accepts and embraces his son-in-law as an equal. Though not every man can aspire to sing as Meachem does, his Sam is an Everyman, complicated in his simplicity and finally strongest when admitting his weaknesses.

Opera is an art that thrives on second chances. Many are the works that overcame unpromising and in some instances utterly disastrous premières to claim eventual success. Nonetheless, how many neglected honorable failures are there for every Carmen, and how many of those honorable failures might prove to be stage-worthy under the right circumstances? In terms of the consistent quality of Leonard Bernstein’s music, the very busy conducting schedule that undoubtedly deprived the public of works that never came to fruition was perhaps advantageous. It can be truthfully if not charitably said of some composers that their least-inspired music is good and their best work not markedly better, but Bernstein had little time for mediocrity. Artistically, A Quiet Place was never a failure, but, as the opera’s protagonists discover, redemption often requires compromise and cooperation. In this performance of A Quiet Place, all of the circumstances are right, and Bernstein’s final work for the operatic stage makes its second chance a triumph.