A Stunning, Though Bleak, 'View From The Bridge'

Christine Brandes (Catherine) and Gregory Turay (Rodolfo) sang with strength and intelligence in William Bolcom's gloomy opera.
Christine Brandes (Catherine) and Gregory Turay (Rodolfo) sang with strength and intelligence in William Bolcom's gloomy opera. (By Karin Cooper)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 5, 2007

Washington National Opera's production of William Bolcom's "A View From the Bridge," which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is shockingly well done, and makes the case that there is still room in the world for visceral, heart-in-mouth music drama.

Bolcom set Arthur Miller's gloomy play -- a story of sexual, social, political and interfamilial tension between cousins who are forced to share an apartment near the grimy Brooklyn waterfront -- to a score of considerable invention and power that complements and enhances the action with rare acuity.

The opera, with a libretto by Miller and Bolcom's collaborator of nearly half a century, Arnold Weinstein, received its world premiere in Chicago in 1999. Three of the lead characters from that production -- Kim Josephson as Eddie, Catherine Malfitano as Beatrice, and Gregory Turay as Rodolfo -- were on hand to sing "A View From the Bridge" in Washington and it is hard to imagine that any of them shall soon be surpassed in their roles.

I hope it will not be taken as a slight if I compare Bolcom's score to the work of the late Gian Carlo Menotti. To be sure, the younger composer is a smarter, more versatile and infinitely less vulgar and hyper-glandular artist. But Menotti had his moments -- "The Consul," with its pervasive, claustrophobic sense of impending doom; Acts 1 and 3 of "The Saint of Bleecker Street," with their "you are there" evocation of brutal, jostling New York City; and most of "Maria Golovin," which melds traditional Italianate lyricism with an idiosyncratic and surprisingly successful modernism.

Bolcom combines the best aspects of what might be called the "higher Menotti" and adds his own qualities to the mix: prismatic orchestration, immense musical knowledge and stylistic eclecticism. I have complained in the past about Bolcom's use of musical quotations -- he sometimes seems to take after Charles Ives who, whenever he didn't know how to end a piece, threw in a snatch of "Bringing in the Sheaves" or "Battle Cry of Freedom" and checked out, in much the same manner that the Monty Python troupe used to suddenly drop a cow on a character who had become tiresome.

I still think quotations are generally a dangerous venture; the tune that the audience hummed throughout intermission was not one of Bolcom's own but rather the time-honored pop song "Paper Doll." And yet Bolcom integrated this and any number of other references so well that he never relinquished artistic control. We heard "Paper Doll" (and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Rule Britannia" and . . . ) through Bolcom's aural prism, within the context of a unified and unfolding totality.

Although WNO offered supertitles (as it should), there was never any difficulty understanding the English language as it was sung onstage -- a real rarity, in my experience. Turay has a high tenor voice that is both virile and surpassingly sweet; he was altogether terrific, and I can easily imagine him bringing a fresh luster to some of the roles that Benjamin Britten created for Peter Pears, without any of the attendant bleating. Josephson, as the haunted, none-too-self-aware Eddie, carried with him just a touch of Tony Soprano: He sang well and surely and won a curious sympathy for his character. Malfitano, of course, is one of the great singing actresses of our time and she did not disappoint in the role of anxious Beatrice, desperately trying to keep the calm.

Christine Brandes sang the challenging, stratospheric role of Catherine with a fine mixture of musical and theatrical smarts. Bass-baritone Richard Bernstein exuded a subtle but increasingly menacing animal power as Marco. Bass-baritone John Del Carlo, in the all-knowing role of Alfieri, who both starts and finishes the opera in much the same manner as the character of "Starry Vere" in Britten's "Billy Budd," sang sadly and with what seemed a suffusion of hard-earned wisdom. There was worthy support from Kirk Eichelberger, Greg Warren, Robert Baker, Harvey D. Fort and Tim Augustin.

As usual, the Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra -- now two of the best such ensembles in the area -- rose to the occasion splendidly, seeming equally at home in Bolcom's mournful threnodies and his graceful tangos. John DeMain conducted with sure command and the requisite mercurial sensitivity. Amy Hutchinson's stage direction, with its combination of grainy photographs, shadowy suggestions of unseen, primordial forces, and formal bows to the conventions of Greek drama, was fully in keeping with the presentation.

This will not be an opera to all tastes. I don't much like the characters, with their "dems," "deses" and "doses," and can live without the archaic Freudianism of the play. Moreover, I have heard a few too many lyrical paeans to the wonders of Manhattan, usually from puffed-up residents, for this particular lifetime (although the aria itself, "New York Lights," contains some of the score's most affecting music). All that said, "A View From the Bridge" is a remarkable accomplishment -- for Bolcom, for the cast, for WNO and for American opera.

A View From the Bridge will be repeated tonight, Thursday, Sunday, Nov. 14 and 17. For information: (202) 295-2400 or http://www.dc-opera.org.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company