MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A View from the Bridge at Seattle Rep


Seeing the excellent production of A View from the Bridge currently running at Seattle Rep, I was reminded of Arthur Miller’s genius for distilling his themes and situations into pared-down forms that are unrelentingly direct.

But the straightforwardness is deceptively simple: Miller’s plays make their stunning impact with the resonance of myth and archetype. Seattle Rep’s production certainly delivers that one-two punch: directed by Braden Abraham, the pacing is as tightly wound as the boxing lesson Eddie Carbone gives Rodolpho. (It’s fascinating to contrast Miller’s emulation of Greek tragedy with that of Eugene O’Neill or of his contemporary Tennessee Williams.)

Mark Zeisler’s gruff but not uncharming Eddie sounded the right note of insecurity that is the character’s fatal flaw (a bit overdetermined, perhaps, in Miller’s hint of a homoerotic attraction to Rodolpho in addition to Eddie’s jealousy over his niece Catherine — but Zeisler downplays the former in any case).

In much of the first act (does anyone perform the original free-verse one-act version anymore?) it seemed some of the audience wanted to defang what was making them uncomfortable about Eddie by trying to view the play as a comedy — Eddie as an Archie Bunker type they could easily mock. But Miller is no sit-com, and fortunately the isolated outbursts of giggles and snickering soon died out.

Amy Danneker makes a compellingly conflicted Catherine, gradually finding her way toward self-determination, with prodding from her Aunt Bea (played with great sympathy by Kristen Potter). Frank Boyd brings an interesting mix of passion, goofiness, and naivete, to Rodolpho. As his brother Marco — and fellow “submarine” (hidden illegal immigrant), Brandon O’Neill hides his simmering desperation uncomfortably until it inevitably comes to a boil at the play’s climax.

Leonard Kelly-Young is all gruff 1950s noir as the lawyer Alfieri, Miller’s take on the ancient chorus. Yet his final speech, about “settling for half,” delivers possibly the play’s most searing moment: “And so I mourn him — I admit it — with a certain…alarm.”

But back to the mythic/archetypal aspect of Miller’s dramaturgy. At the same time, View is deeply rooted in its 1950s setting, politically, socially, culturally. This fusion of place and realism with the archetypal reminded me of Edward Hopper, as did the superb work of the design team: Scott Bradley’s sets, Rose Pederson’s costumes, Geoff Korf’s lighting.

And that combination of realism and archetypes of course brings to mind the verismo aesthetic. So it’s no surprise View has been made into an opera (in fact, more than once): most famously, into a work of American verismo by William Bolcom.

One of the several reasons André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire is so unsatisfying, in my opinion, is the superfluous prospect of translating Tennessee Williams’s theater, inextricable from his language, to this medium. But Miller offers a composer more genuinely operatic possibilities.

Reviewing Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world premiere production of the Bolcom opera in 1999, the critic Philip Kennicott makes some thought-provoking observations:

If you believe what seems to be a growing consensus in American opera–that pursuing stylistic and dramatic originality is a dead end–then this can be judged a truly great American opera. Bolcom mixes it up–barbershop quartets, jazz, Broadway flourishes and Puccini–creating an unapologetic and dizzying stylistic mix. Had this opera been written while Bernstein was at his peak, reviewers would have proclaimed a new genius to rival the master.

If you believe that new opera need offer only a good evening of musical entertainment, stylistic and musical originality be damned, then Bolcom’s opera will seem like a mongrelized family portrait of the last century of operatic history.

[…]

Bolcom … seems to argue that this opera isn’t just more mix-it-up postmodernism but a genuine American verismo work that just happens to have been written in 1999 (and is meant to sound like 1955).

I expect that many listeners will have exactly the same reaction to this paradox of late-20th-century opera–is it really indistinguishable from the music theater we love from an earlier era?–as I did. They will enjoy it yet question the artistic integrity behind it.

Nonetheless, Bolcom’s new work has a feeling of tragic grandeur to it, and the Lyric Opera production spares no effort to underscore it.

Filed under: Arthur Miller, opera, review, theater

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