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William Browning as Eddie Carbone [Photo by Ben Ehrenreich]
04 Nov 2009

A View from the Bridge by Vertical Player Repertory

Unlike many contemporary composers — who too often derive their operas from full-length novels — William Bolcom (whose first opera, to be fair, was the novel-based McTeague, which I do not know) based his second,

William Bolcom: A View from the Bridge

Beatrice Carbone: Judith Barnes; Catherine: Valentina Fleer; Eddie Carbone: William Browning; Alfieri: Samuel Smith; Rodolpho: Glenn Seven Allen; Marco: Branch Fields. Vertical Player Repertory, at 219 Court Street, Brooklyn. Performance of November 1.

Click here for photo gallery of this production.

 

A View from the Bridge, on a taut, tight play by Arthur Miller about immigrants in Brooklyn, a piece whose operatic and classically tragic echoes were striking even without music. This follows the tradition of Verdi and Puccini, who got most of their best opera libretti from plays. I read Bridge in tenth grade and retained enough of it in memory to expect certain lines in the libretto — and sighed with delight when they arrived, Bolcom and Miller and co-librettist Arnold Weinstein having been unwilling to let them go either:

Catherine: Hungry?
Rodolpho (looking at her): Not for food.

and the climactic

Beatrice: I know what you want, Eddie — and you can’t ever have her.

— and both of these bits of dialogue have been lightly, delicately, musicked so that an audience will get the words clearly. (How would it go over in Italian, I wonder? A suggested Palermo production of the opera fell victim to that famously sticky Italian red tape. One would like to know how Italians take this very Italian but non-Mafia New World tale.)

At the Vertical Player Repertory production of the opera, in its tiny home on Court Street in Cobble Hill, set and theater were so small you felt scrunched into a claustrophobic kitchen to the point of explosion, just as the characters are on stage. Voices rather louder than you ever hear in your kitchen also suit this story — and these were very good voices. It made for thrilling theater, but left me puzzled how the piece plays on the stages of immense theaters like the Chicago Lyric and the Met. The next performances hereabouts will be a VPR staging in situ, on the docks in Red Hook in June, following the footsteps of their highly admired presentation of Puccini’s barge-side opera, Il Tabarro, in that venue. That performance will have a small orchestra — these indoor performances made do with two pianos in a carefully redacted arrangement.

A View from the Bridge gives the lie to the old law of drama that tragedy requires a ruling figure destroyed by his tragic flaw. Eddie Carbone is a longshoreman in Brooklyn in the era of On the Waterfront, and his word is law only to his womenfolk — but his code of honor is clearly stated, his tragic conflict simply presented, and his downfall feels as fated and piteous as any Greek hero’s. He lives with his long-suffering wife and her orphaned niece — and, having no child of his own, has delighted in the niece — but she’s not a little girl any more, and his feelings are more than protective. Now two poor cousins, illegal aliens, arrive from Sicily — the local code demands they be offered hospitality and secrecy — betrayal to Immigration will incur ostracism or worse in this close-knit community. And Catherine, the niece, falls for Rodolpho, the younger, prettier “submarine.” Eddie suggests Rodolpho is gay, “not right,” or selfishly seeking a green card marriage — but everyone sees, and fears to mention, the jealousy that’s really eating him. Will he break his own code of honor? Can he have any self-respect, any life, if he does?

All the play lacked was a chorus, awkward in modern naturalistic theater. Their place taken by Alfieri, a lawyer on the fringes of the action, sort of a Tiresias figure, warning Eddie, predicting disaster. (Would Tiresias the seer be a lawyer today — or would he be Bernie Madoff?) In an opera, of course, you can have a chorus — streets can talk, even sing — which leaves Alfieri very little to do. Keeping the community on stage, observing, commenting, participating, seems very Greek — Sicily, remember, was Magna Graecia, the wealthy western colonized New World in the time of the classical tragedians — and the skill with which they slide on or scuttle off into the cramped edges of the scaffolded VPR set is not the least extraordinary thing about Michael Unger’s vivid direction.

With their audience so close to the action and the instruments cut down to barebones pianos (Bolcom is the sort of composer who would much rather highlight a significant word or gesture than whelm the emotions in a wave of sound), you need a cast who can make big sounds while moving and acting with total commitment, and VPR had them. They put over a riveting account of the play, even to their eyes raging, lusting, and popping from the head, while singing with great big voices. The vocal style is more Verismo than Mozart, which suits the story down to the ground.

At VPR all the voices were big and in tune and hardly seemed “operatic,” so natural and intense was the acting. William Browning, in the unsympathetic but tragic role of Eddie, seemed especially in command of every vocal nuance and every gesture. He has a longshoreman’s barrel chest and a big, agreeable baritone, but he is also a presence: his slow burn was almost as loud as his vocalism. As Beatrice, Judith Barnes’s sizable soprano showed an edge when heated — sometimes approaching shrillness — but a calm, measured voice would have been a mistake for this unassuming woman driven to speak unspeakable truths. Valentina Fleer and Glenn Seven Allen made personable, charmingly vocal young lovers, and Allen’s “Lights of New York” aria, the prettiest and most memorable tune in the show, was a highlight — “I wanted to write him a Neapolitan canzone; I figured that’s the style Rodolpho would know,” says Bolcom — but both performers showed themselves actors of considerable weight as well. Branch Fields, as Marco, stopped the show with his bitter denunciation of hunger and the laws of immigration. As Bolcom retailed it, in an after-the-show talk-back, he felt Marco, all but inarticulate in the play, needed a vocal moment to himself — and on his shyly saying so, Miller, unquestioning, wrote the text for it in three days. Samuel Smith, as Alfieri, the lawyer commentator, showed a strong basso cantante but he should take care — his voice was the only one that displayed an unlovely beat when pushed. Longshoremen were all well cast, and the chorus sang effectively and got on and off stage in amazing style. I wish they’d give lessons on movement to the chorus at the Met.

I had not heard this score before, and while I am now curious to hear it with full orchestra am not sure it is music with the charm to pull me back again and again, as the great operatic works do. The play has largely been set in a conversational arioso style, that pauses tidily for set pieces like Rodolpho’s hymn to owning a motorcycle or a Christmas carol quartet for the longshoremen, but the music that underlies the dialogue tends to astringency rather than melody; individual phrases of music do not hold you — the whiplash of the play and its fascinating characters do. If three characters have something — even different things — on their minds, I’m old-fashioned enough to think a trio would be a nice way to get this across and pass the time. Bolcom seems to feel this would be intrusive; he’d rather home in on the dramatic action, and no one can doubt his success in doing so. I recall more tunes from the other Arthur Miller opera I’ve encountered, Robert Ward’s excellent The Crucible — but that one has never played the Met.

John Yohalem

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