A View from the Bridge by Vertical Player Repertory

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

image_description=William Browning as Eddie Carbone [Photo by Ben Ehrenreich]
product_title=William Bolcom: A View from the Bridge
product_by=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.
product_id=Click here for photo gallery of this production.