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William Bolcom
04 Dec 2007

Bolcom’s ”View” brilliant at WNO

The American Dream and the tragic vision of ancient Greece are miles and millennia apart; yet they merge seamlessly in William Bolcom’s “View from the Bridge,” on stage in November at the Washington National Opera.

Above: William Bolcom
© 2006 Katryn Conlin for VocalEssence


The mythic dimension, of course, was already there in Arthur Miller’s 1957 drama, a true-to-life story, in which the author detected “some re-enactment of Greek myth that was ringing a long-buried bell in my subconscious mind.” In the play Bolcom too sensed the mythic horizon behind life in the New York Sicilian community of which Eddie Carbone had long been a pillar. And working with Miller and long-time collaborator Arnold Weinstein to “translate” the drama into opera the composer amplified the mythic resonance of the story by adding a chorus that functions as it did in classic tragedy: it comments on — rather than taking part in — the events at hand.

Commissioned by and premiered at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1999, “View” moved — with the addition of two arias to the score — to the Metropolitan Opera in 2002 . And this third staging of the original production — directed by Frank Galati with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto — by a major company confirms that this is indeed an American classic.

Three singers in the WNO cast who created their roles in Chicago and then repeated them at the Met contribute greatly to the WNO success: Kim Josephson as stevedore Eddie Carbone, Catherine Malfitano as his wife Beatrice and Gregory Turay as relative Rodolfo newly-arrived from Italy.

It is a coincidence perhaps that this trio returns to “View” for a third time. Yet their presence in the cast speaks of a commitment to the work that came across clearly in the performance at Washington’s Kennedy Center on November 14. It is, of course, Malfitano, now looking back on an international career spanning three decades, who amazes. The dramatic power and the beauty of her voice remain undiminished. Her delivery of “When am I gonna be a wife again?” — one of the added arias — expresses the pain she feels as she watches her husband’s growing obsession with her orphaned niece, portrayed with all the innocence of the ‘50s by Christine Brandes.

This illicit passion that turns this account of life in a community still committed to an Old-World code of honor into tragedy defines Eddie as the central figure in “View,” and Josephson has fully mastered the complexity of the role. He violates this code first in his passion for his niece and then in reporting his wife’s illegal immigrant relatives in to authorities. But of far greater consequence is the kiss that he gives his rival Rodolfo.

It is a violation of a taboo that determines the outcome of the drama. What makes the scene doubly compelling is that up to this moment Eddie was not consciously aware of the sexual attraction that Rodolfo held for him.

This kiss, comparable in its force to that embrace in the Garden of Gethsemane, is at the very heart of “View,” and Bolcom has set it with a master’s hand. Backed by the black-white bleakness of the photographs projected on the rear of the stage, it reaches beyond the story as a violation of such dimensions that it demands action from the gods. Indeed, in its impact, it stands beside Hagen’s murder of Siegfried in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” It is one of the great moments in opera.

An outstanding member of the supporting cast is Richard Bernstein as illegal immigrant — “submarine” — Bruno. Bass Bernstein, one of America’s most agile singers, is superb in everything he does, yet he remains among the unsung truly significant voices of his generation. And he makes “A Ship Called Hunger,” the finest and most overpowering aria in the score, a show stopper. Indeed, the bitterly sorrowful line “I do not understand you, America!” is the supreme vocal moment in the opera.

Also impressive is veteran bass John Del Carlo as Lawyer Alfieri, a man intimately familiar with the characters in the drama, but at the same time an objective observer who leads the chorus that Bolcom has integrated so effectively into the score. And tenor Turay brings bel canto brilliance to Bolcom’s recasting of the hit song “Paper Doll” as a Pucciniesque aria.

John DeMain, now in the senior ranks of American conductors, gives full power to Bolcom’s score with the WNO orchestra. Amy Hutchison directed this re-staging of the Chicago production.

“View from the Bridge” tells a story as poignant as it is bleak of what opera scholar Thomas May describes as “an era that combined lingering innocence with suspiciousness, unjaded faith in the American dream with a shield of cynicism.” Arthur Miller was a major spokesman of that age; with this opera William Bolcom lays bare its emotional heart.

Wes Blomster

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