It takes nerve to start an opera with a snuff video. In the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s last opera A Quiet Place, director Krysztof Warlikowski and video designer Kamil Polak spread a giant scrim across all of the not inconsiderable stage at Palais Garnier and show us an American cityscape in which a woman, obviously drunk, drives to her death. It’s some of the most disturbing imagery you will see in an opera house.

A Quiet Place
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra national de Paris

It sets the scene brilliantly for Bernstein’s dark tale of family dystopia. The woman is Dinah, married to overbearing Sam and estranged mother of Junior and Dede. Junior is gay and mentally unstable. He has emigrated to Canada to set up house with his lover, François. Dede, who may or may not be an abuse victim herself, has gone to join them and actually married François, ostensibly to be able to look after her brother.

A Quiet Place
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra national de Paris

Presented here as a one-act piece (there are various other incarnations), A Quiet Place proceeds in three phases. First is the funeral, where the family assemble with a scattering of different mourners to paint a picture of the dysfunctional family, gradually, with many brushstrokes. Warlikowski and Polak end this with another visual shock: the image that you never see of the inside of a crematorium furnace as the coffin is consumed. Next, as the lesser characters melt away, we see a series of reminiscences where we learn about their inner battles; there’s no dream that can sour as nastily as the American Dream of a perfect family and that souring process is shown in all its horror. Finally, in the peace and calm of Dinah’s overgrown garden, there is a family struggle, demanded by Dinah’s will, for reconciliation and redemption. Warlikowski gets top class acting performances from his cast, while designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak gives us costumes which neatly place us in the American context and sets that move smoothly in and out to reveal different rooms, often splitting the stage horizontally to show us more than one room at the same time.

A Quiet Place
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra national de Paris

The production has a direct link to Bernstein in the shape of conductor Kent Nagano, who studied with Bernstein and often discussed A Quiet Place with him. Nagano’s affinity for Bernstein is evident. This is a complex score, often with multiple characters following different musical threads simultaneously, and Nagano seemed completely unfazed by the most elaborate of the polyrhythmic complexity, no doubt increased by the use of a newly created adaptation for larger orchestra. When the score veered from modern classical into quotes from past show tunes or jazz (Lenny could never resist a good tune), Nagano steered the ship smoothly, without missing a beat and always allowing space for the singers. There’s little light relief on stage, but a fair amount that’s provided by musical quotes and gags – I particularly enjoyed the auto-da-fé line from Candide transmuted by the Québecois François into “what a day, what a day for a café-au-lait” and the video extract from a Bernstein orchestral masterclass on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony which merges into a depiction of Junior’s mental state. This isn’t a score with immediate popular appeal – it’s far too dark and thickly textured for that – but it’s wonderfully effective at driving the drama and there are many moments of real beauty.

A Quiet Place
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra national de Paris

This is such an ensemble piece that it’s hard to single out any particular performance from the generally unimpeachable singing and acting of the whole cast. The most eye-catching were the two children: Claudia Boyle as Dede and Gordon Bintner as Junior both had huge stage presence as well as distinctive voices able to cut through the wash. But more than ample support was provided by Russell Braun’s Sam, Frédéric Antoun’s François and a host of singers in lesser roles.

This production makes it difficult to understand why A Quiet Place is so rarely performed. Trouble in Tahiti (the opera to which it is a sequel and which can be performed within it as a flashback) also deserves far more frequent outings than it gets. This is virtuosic musical theatre at its most hard-hitting and deserves to be seen.

*****