The Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Wadsworth opera A QUIET PLACE was not well received when it premiered in 1985, but after seeing its first New York performance on Wednesday night, by the New York City Opera, I suspect that historical distance was the missing ingredient a quarter of a century ago.
Alternating between the 1950s and the 1980s, and built around family conflicts stirred up by a funeral, it is generically of a piece with novels and films such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and Revolutionary Road, or the sociology of The Lonely Crowd or The Organization Man, a deep critique of the malaise and illusion of suburbia and the so-called American Dream. But what the years have added – and the material may originally have lacked – is a touch of nostalgia, the sort of discomforting yearning for a better time that we feel we once experienced, yet which in reality was and would be again palpably unsatisfying, unjust, oppressive, and delusory.
As though to accentuate the paradox, this movingly sung and acted work of theatre is resonant of Thornton Wilder, with its slanted streams of light, the intermingling of the living and the dead, and the symbolic use of ordinary objects, like rows of chairs and a child’s swing set. This is a memory of “America” and a critique of it, the “America” that today far too many among us think is possible and desirable to return to, as the nostalgia that the production provokes in the rest of us drives home.
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