So there was this guy in Brooklyn had a thing for his niece. Ended real ugly . . .
Arthur Miller says he first picked up the brutal story that became the basis of his 1955 play "A View From the Bridge"--a tale of incest, jealousy and betrayal among Italian immigrants--from a dockworker in Brooklyn. Perhaps he did, and perhaps the incident was true. But by 1955, the basic threads of this story were long familiar from turn-of-the-century Italian verismo opera (and plenty of still earlier plays and novels). Now, almost a half century after the opening of Miller's play, composer William Bolcom has retold the oft-told tale in operatic form, turning "A View From the Bridge" into an eponymous opera that received its world premiere Saturday evening at the Lyric Opera.
Miller was fascinated by the primeval story of an Italian American longshoreman who is so emotionally addicted to the young niece he has raised that he betrays several illegal immigrants, including the effeminate young man who wants to marry her. It was powerful and inexorable, like Greek tragedy, but was it substantial enough for a new play? Miller wasn't sure. He decided to give it theatrical weight by framing it within an intellectual discussion familiar from his earlier work "The Crucible": How does our relation to law define our character? And he highlighted the sexual undercurrents in the story, a father figure's self-delusion and emasculation revealed through his rage at an effeminate man.
But the play was a funny little thing, a spoken rag-and-bone-shop opera, complete with a furious street-scene confrontation and stabbing, surrounded by some groping at deeper issues in American culture and the immigrant experience. It was ugly--as almost all realism is ugly--and it raised psychosexual issues (why do men confuse yielding to women with emasculation?) that still make us uncomfortable.
Bolcom's musical response to the story is fascinating. Listeners' response to Bolcom's opera will depend on what they want from a new opera.
If you believe what seems to be a growing consensus in American opera--that pursuing stylistic and dramatic originality is a dead end--then this can be judged a truly great American opera. Bolcom mixes it up--barbershop quartets, jazz, Broadway flourishes and Puccini--creating an unapologetic and dizzying stylistic mix. Had this opera been written while Bernstein was at his peak, reviewers would have proclaimed a new genius to rival the master.
If you believe that new opera need offer only a good evening of musical entertainment, stylistic and musical originality be damned, then Bolcom's opera will seem like a mongrelized family portrait of the last century of operatic history.
He borrows directly from Benjamin Britten, recognizing the character of Alfieri (a lawyer who serves as the self-implicated chorus in this tragedy) as the double of Captain Vere from Britten's "Billy Budd" (another opera about a beautiful young man who subverts the code of masculinity). Indeed, he even borrows Britten's dark string figures that sustain tension throughout Alfieri's monologue. He also sponges freely from Mascagni (the sudden lyrical outburst that signals the denouement) and Pagliacci (in so many ways, the most obvious of which are the final lines of the opera--"this is the end of the story," sung directly to the audience). And Bernstein and Copland haunt the proceedings like twin gargoyles above the proscenium.
American opera composers have found a new creative direction to replace the obsession, in the 1980s, with so-called "current events" operas (works based on, say, Richard Nixon or Marilyn Monroe). As the American Century comes to an end, composers such as Bolcom are turning to classic American theater and literature for inspiration. They are struggling to fill in gaps in the catalogue, to compose a few more "classics" in the style of sophisticated 1950s music theater. Bolcom, in particular, seems to argue that this opera isn't just more mix-it-up postmodernism but a genuine American verismo work that just happens to have been written in 1999 (and is meant to sound like 1955).
I expect that many listeners will have exactly the same reaction to this paradox of late-20th-century opera--is it really indistinguishable from the music theater we love from an earlier era?--as I did. They will enjoy it yet question the artistic integrity behind it.
Nonetheless, Bolcom's new work has a feeling of tragic grandeur to it, and the Lyric Opera production spares no effort to underscore it. A consistently strong cast has been assembled, including Catherine Malfitano as the suffering but perceptive wife, Timothy Nolen as the observant lawyer, Kim Josephson as the explosive Eddie Carbone, Gregory Turay as the hapless Rodolpho and Juliana Rambaldi as Catherine.
Malfitano's middle and lower ranges are still sensual, and her acting is still bewitching. Nolen is an authoritative presence who could be yet more reflective and haunted, a la Britten's Vere. Turay's clear tenor is almost always up to the task, and his voice (appropriately for this role) seems always on the point of breaking into sobs. Josephson and Rambaldi goad each other into terrifying and effective vocal and dramatic outbursts.
The set, by Santo Loquasto, is dark and jagged, with girders framing projections (by Wendall K. Harrington) that depict the nasty streets of Brooklyn. Director Frank Galati's rare missteps are a few Broadway-inspired comic touches, but they're brief intrusions on an honest, blood-and-guts theatrical approach. Dennis Russell Davies leads the Lyric Opera Orchestra and chorus with skill.