What's Opera Now, Doc?

While Broadway Lives the Puccinian Past, William Bolcom Gives the Met a New 'View'

The real reason Boheme is sung in Italian is that it gives the marketers a wider choice of young singers to ensnare: They can get anyone who's studied the original, and not make them relearn it in English. We're a long way from the days when opera was largely given—as I think it still should be—in the language of the audience. Updated in costume and jived in the supertitles, Boheme is still kept at an iconic distance, a foreign object instead of a living work. Which makes it all the funnier to go to the Met, as I did the next week, and see a new American opera in English as vernacular as it could be: William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge, based on Arthur Miller's play.

This is Bolcom's fifth opera, more or less. I use the qualifier because he is the living embodiment of what marketers call "crossover." Most widely known as a superb ragtime pianist who accompanies his wife, the delightful mezzo Joan Morris, in American popular songs, his earliest music-theater works were designated "opera for actors" and sung largely by musical-theater performers. View, in keeping with Bolcom's tradition, has a song hit, the tenor aria "New York lights," which I expect to find cropping up on a lot of crossover CDs; it also has a preexisting pop song, Johnny Black's "Paper Doll," which Bolcom cannily embeds in its score: When the illegal immigrant Rodolpho uses it to display his vocal talents, it's arranged lushly, like the folk ballads old-time Italian opera stars sang as encores. When Eddie, the tragic hero, uses the words to accuse Rodolpho of being queer, the tune comes out of the orchestral fabric in harsh, choppy fragments. The whole score's built, in fact, on harsh-rhythmed motifs taken from phrases in the text, starting with the two-note ostinato, in the very first bar, that sets the scene, "Red Hook," as well as suggesting the downward sweep of a longshoreman's hook on a cargo crate.

The music is Italianate, its Puccini vocabulary modified by later modernist strategies, like the modified tone-row that begins its other great aria, "A ship called Hunger," for Rodolpho's older brother, Marco. The paradox of View, in fact, is that its limitation comes from its Americanness: The Sicilian characters, emotionally open, get the big numbers; the Italian Americans, having assimilated to our puritanical culture, tend instead to vociferate in arioso. Eddie, whose story this is, has three big, compelling scenes, but no aria. To give him one would, in effect, send him back to Italy, breaking both the form and the substance of Miller's play. Everywhere else, Bolcom and his librettists have stretched the play to let in what expressiveness they could, enhancing the roles of Eddie's wife Bea and her niece Catherine, bringing the neighborhood into play as a Greek chorus (with lawyer Alfieri as their choregus), and letting the richly colored orchestration say whatever Eddie is incapable of expressing.

A View From the Bridge: "Paper Doll" Hits the Met.
photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera
A View From the Bridge: "Paper Doll" Hits the Met.

The opera's richness might be better conveyed in a livelier production; I found Frank Galati's Met staging cramped and dull. Dennis Russell Davies caught all the orchestral colors but, at the fourth performance, held the singers in a tight rein that curbed emotional expansiveness. Despite which Gregory Turay (Rodolpho), Catherine Malfitano (Beatrice), and Sandra Lopez (Catherine) made a powerful impression. The final irony is that Broadway, in whose smaller houses nuances can be read, is probably a better venue for View, and for most of its illustrious predecessors in American dramatic opera, than the vast Met. I rather wish Boheme and View could change venues, and perhaps even directors. There's a good half-century's worth of operas for which the audience nurtured on sung-through musicals is now ready: Regina, Street Scene, Summer and Smoke, The Consul, Susannah. A number of these began life on Broadway, when the opera houses admitted nothing later than Puccini. What does it say about Broadway that the situation is now reversed?

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