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Review: Leonard Bernstein’s ‘A Quiet Place’ at the Paris Opera

PARIS — “We’re going to listen to music that describes emotions — feelings like pain, happiness, loneliness, anger, love,” Leonard Bernstein once said during an episode of his beloved, televised “Young People’s Concerts.”

“I guess most music is like that,” he added. “And the better it is, the more it will make you feel those emotions that the composer felt when he was writing.”

Bernstein was introducing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, but he could just as easily have been speaking about his own music — even his grim and spiky final opera, “A Quiet Place.” With a libretto by Stephen Wadsworth, this piece has had a tortured history, struggling to find its form before and after its 1983 premiere. It was heavily criticized, and revised several times, culminating in 2013 with a version by Garth Edwin Sunderland that could give this work — in a genre that kept eluding Bernstein — a brighter future.

That version, a sweeping rethinking of the piece’s dramaturgy and orchestration, has been altered again for the Paris Opera, which is giving Sunderland’s edition its most prominent staging yet in a new production that opened on Wednesday at the Palais Garnier.

In the conductor Kent Nagano, the production has the world’s finest champion of “A Quiet Place,” who several years ago recorded Sunderland’s version and again leads it to brilliant and illuminating effect. And in the director Krzysztof Warlikowski, it has one of the European stage’s smartest interpreters of family dysfunction and sexual complexity, the opera’s central themes.

At the end of Act II, Warlikowski adds a scene in which a boy sneakily watches that episode of “Young People’s Concerts” after his parents go to sleep. And in its best moments, the work gives you what Bernstein described on TV: the ability to make you feel the emotions he had when he was writing an at times painfully personal opera. It remains full of flaws — mainly, clichés of mid-20th-century American ennui — yet in its current form, it is also a piece of subtlety and suggestion, a short story with the weight of a novel, an example of masterly craft and postmodern style.

“A Quiet Place” — the story of a matriarch’s death, and the reconciliation it brings her broken family, inspired by Bernstein and Wadsworth’s own losses — was originally created as a sequel to Bernstein’s satirical, jazzy one-act “Trouble in Tahiti,” from the early 1950s; they were first presented together as a punishingly long double bill. Bernstein and Wadsworth revised “A Quiet Place” to be a single, three-act work, with “Trouble in Tahiti” incorporated as flashbacks. That, too, made for a bloated evening, in length and in a maximalist scoring for over 70 musicians, including electric guitar and synthesizer.

Sunderland’s version is leaner in every respect. He does away with “Trouble in Tahiti,” whose bitter effervescence collided ungracefully with the thorniness of “A Quiet Place,” and reduced some characters while expanding others, reinstating some arias that had been cut. He reorchestrated the score for just 18 players, and the running time was brought down to roughly 90 minutes, with no intermission.

For the Paris Opera, Sunderland kept the brevity but fleshed out the instrumentation — a Goldilocks medium between 18 and 72 musicians — including added winds and brasses, along with a harpsichord and organ, which provides heft and naturalism in the Act I funeral without sacrificing the clarity of the 2013 version. The electric guitar and synthesizer, which inevitably evoke the 1980s, are thankfully still gone.

To further avoid seeming dated, Warlikowski’s staging, while set in 1983, is not a facsimile of its time. It takes place in a single room, faced head-on, of towering walls and with sets simultaneously familiar and impossible to place: that era’s fashions, surrounded by sleek, futuristic panels. Spaces like these — designed by Warlikowski’s frequent collaborator Malgorzata Szczesniak, and typical of his productions — can feel at once expansive and suffocating, and his characters tend to behave accordingly, both exposed and trapped.

Warlikowski is otherwise largely deferential to the libretto — with a few affecting interventions. Dinah, one half of the unhappy couple of “Trouble in Tahiti,” isn’t in “A Quiet Place,” which begins with her funeral. But Warlikowski casts a silent actor (Johanna Wokalek) in the role, and she haunts the stage throughout, in a blending of time and memory that mirrors the non sequiturs of the libretto’s slides into reverie and role play.

It’s one of several ways Dinah is present in this production, which opens with a video (by Kamil Polak) of her fatal car accident — likely a suicide, almost certainly under the influence — and, for the rending Act I postlude music, projects a portrait of her above the coffin and crematory. In it, she is the face of the post-World War II American ideal, but with the empty expression and double-edged smile of a James Rosenquist painting.

Dinah and her husband, Sam — the baritone Russell Braun, a standout, delicate and with a vast emotional range of pain, anger and aimlessness — had two children. One is the gay, mentally ill Junior (the bass-baritone Gordon Bintner, elegant in his rage and woefully redolent of “Dear Evan Hansen” in his constant, visible neuroses); the other, Dede (Claudia Boyle, a soprano who warmed up to the role as the evening went on).

A new member of the family is François, Dede’s husband (Frédéric Antoun, strained at the opera’s climax), whom she met through his former lover, Junior. If that suggests incestuous behavior, just wait: We learn that Junior and Dede also experimented with each other as children.

Junior enters the funeral in a garish, pink-and-purple cowboy outfit — a choice that makes sense later when he is represented as a boy wearing the same costume, being held and then rejected by his mother. The opera’s conflation of insanity and homosexuality has long been one of its problems, but Warlikowski helps slightly by treating Junior’s queerness as coincident with, rather than the cause of, his arrested development. Other things that have aged poorly, though, are baked into the text; Dinah’s misery-driven alcoholism is more worthy of sighs than sympathy.

There were more innovative American operas that premiered in the 1980s: Philip Glass’s portrait of resistance in “Satyagraha”; or the grand, nearly mythic treatment of leaders in Anthony Davis’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” and in John Adams’s “Nixon in China.” “A Quiet Place” benefits from no longer being so directly juxtaposed with them; it is now easier to meet on its own terms, neither avant-garde nor as eager to please as Bernstein’s earlier works.

And while it can sometimes feel like a rote regurgitation of postwar culture and its miseries, the ambiguous ending is something of a departure from those clichés. In Warlikowski’s staging, Bernstein’s uneasy final chords accompany an image of Dinah’s family sharing a sofa. The only way forward for them is forgiveness — not the most common way for an opera to end, but a recollection of a classic: Janacek’s “Jenufa.”

Look closely at the four of them: Sam and Junior, reunited; François; and Dede, who scoots, visibly uncomfortable, away from her husband. They are still suffering, in a cycle you could see continuing to the present day. The distinctly American darkness of “A Quiet Place” may be more relevant than we’d like to think.

A Quiet Place

Through March 30 at the Paris Opera; operadeparis.fr.

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