Since composers everywhere seem to be writing operas these days, a viable repertory of American work may actually be on the horizon at last. Now at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is William Bolcom's A View From the Bridge, an operatic setting of Arthur Miller's 1955 play. No new opera could ask for a more favorable launch: the active participation of the famous playwright himself, a production budget of $1.4 million, a starry cast of singers, a Tony-award-winning director (Frank Galati, for The Grapes of Wrath), reams of advance publicity, 68 critics on hand to spread the word around the globe, and the prospects of a trade with the Metropolitan Opera, which will send its production of John Harbison's upcoming The Great Gatsby to Chicago in exchange for Bolcom's View.
Expectations ran high on opening night, perhaps unreasonably high. Not, I hasten to say, that A View From the Bridge is a dismal failure. Bolcom is an important composer in his prime, who writes confidently in an eclectic style that is musically sophisticated but always accessible. The material has been craftily adapted by the composer's longtime collaborator, Arnold Weinstein, who retains the drama's taut structure while still allowing ample opportunity for lyrical expansion. The basic elements of Miller's play are unchanged: The Brooklyn dock worker Eddie Carbone pursues his tragic destiny, a fatal attraction to his niece that results in his death. The main addition is a commenting chorus of neighbors led by the lawyer Alfieri, a device that underscores the play's kinship with Greek tragedy. Powerfully and subtly manipulated, their presence is a telling demonstration of how opera can add extra dimension to spoken drama.
That said, I wonder if such a play, essentially a highly charged linear melodrama of the sort that Puccini set to music so skillfully, is really right for Bolcom, whose bold catholic style lends itself better to pageantlike subjects (as in his previous opera, McTeague). The score is nothing if not apt and theatrically savvy, with a delicious feel for the underlying pop idioms of the time (early fifties), but the characters seldom come alive through their music. Nearly everyone has a solo of some consequence, although these set pieces never grab the ear or look deeply into the emotions of the moment. One aria is a serious miscalculation, a lengthy monologue for Marco -- the instrument of Eddie's death but still a minor character -- that fatally undercuts the relentless progress of the opera's finale. Eddie, in fact, seems almost a complete musical cipher, and the problem of how to portray a man so inarticulate and unaware of himself is never really addressed. In Wozzeck, Alban Berg had a similar challenge, which he solved with a heart-crunching orchestral interlude. Eddie has no such epiphany, and, musically, at least, he remains a very shadowy figure.
The Lyric Opera's production could not be more effectively mounted or splendidly cast. Santo Loquasto's sets and Wendall K. Harrington's fluid projections capture the poetic realism of the piece to perfection, locating the Carbones' suffocating apartment in the midst of a constantly changing Brooklyn community. Frank Galati directs with a keen eye for detail and character definition, and Dennis Russell Davies encourages the orchestra to savor the score's purely musical beauties without compromising the drama's swift pacing. Working as a honed ensemble, the cast never strikes a false note. Kim Josephson (Eddie), Catherine Malfitano (Beatrice), Juliana Rambaldi (Catherine), Gregory Turay (Rodolpho), Timothy Nolen (Alfieri), and Mark McCrory (Marco) -- singers seldom reach this level of assurance and precision on the night of a world premiere.