By John Quinn
There are reliable signs that spring has returned to Michigan. Daffodils are poking through my unraked leaves, meaning Holland’s tulips are not far behind. The Tigers are back in Comerica Park – and winning for a change. And just a couple of blocks over, Michigan Opera Theatre launches its 43rd spring season with something of a “Pure Michigan” production, “A View from the Bridge.”
The 1999 opera is by composer William Bolcom, professor emeritus of the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan and his long-time collaborator, librettist Arnold Weinstein. It is an adaptation of the 1956 play “A View from the Bridge” by Arthur Miller, who worked with the pair in adapting his tense urban tragedy. Miller was a University of Michigan graduate. A couple of Wolverines accomplished quite a feat, making grand opera accessible to contemporary tastes.
The time is the mid ’50s; the place, Red Hook, a waterfront neighborhood of Brooklyn. The residents are a close-knit Sicilian community of immigrants and first generation Americans. The main occupation – when work is available – is longshoremen. One of them is Eddie Carbone, a man “good as he had to be,” who has raised his wife’s orphaned niece from infancy. Catherine is now 17 and ready to go out into the world. Eddie, however, won’t let go. He’s harboring an unholy passion for Catherine, which is crippling his marriage to Beatrice. They have agreed to shelter two of Beatrice’s cousins who are entering the U.S. illegally, hoping to blend into the community. They are Marco, a big bull of a man, and his more sensitive brother, Rodolfo.
When his attempts to smear Rodolfo’s character fail, Eddie is left with two choices. He can acquiesce to a wedding or get rid of the brothers by informing on them to immigration authorities. Such a breach of trust would be the ultimate evil in an enclave of immigrants. The crisis is worthy of Greek tragedy. Eddie’s deadly sin is not pride, but jealousy. He “covets” Catherine. For what choice does a selfish man opt: his own happiness, or another’s?
“A View from the Bridge” is a far more lyrical score than one expects in atonal music. Stylistically it’s solidly opera, but Bolcom leavens the mixture with bursts of other musical genres: jazz and swing, even directly quoting the Mill’s Brothers 1944 hit, “Paper Doll.” The score demonstrates a difference between musical theater and opera that the seasoned patron recognizes, but the newbie might not. Opera scores reflect and augment the emotional beats to a much greater degree than musicals. You might say that one goes to “see” a musical, but one goes to “hear” an opera.
The program notes that this is a reduced orchestration commissioned by the University of Texas, but this edition lacks nothing. Conductor Suzanne Mallare Acton elicits a crisp, vibrant sound from the orchestra, and as MOT’s chorus master, provides an equally satisfying performance from the chorus. Stage direction is by Tazewell Thompson, who brings a natural flow to what could be uncomfortable staging.
Patrons of “A View from the Bridge” have the rare opportunity to hear the original voice of Eddie Cantore, baritone Kim Josephson. His ever-flexible voice suits the conflicting emotions of the tragic hero, and he looks the part, to boot.
If the plot didn’t have Freudian subtext to begin with, it’s provided by casting soprano Kiri Deonarine as Catherine. Deonarine is Josephson’s daughter. Her crystal clear tone mirrors Catherine’s exuberance in her newly discovered womanhood, yet still can portray the increasing hatred she feels for her uncle. As Beatrice, Beverly O’Regan Thiele is the third side of an unlikely triangle, deferential to her overbearing husband until her visceral aria, “When Am I Gonna Be a Wife Again?”
Rodolfo is sung by Eric Margiore, a powerful tenor in classic tradition. His performance of “New York Lights,” an aria that has taken on a life of its own, is memorable. His brother, Marco, is played by Jonathan Lasch, who, although designated as a baritone, possesses extraordinary power well into bass range. The aria “A Ship Called Hunger” is literally a show-stopper.
Also of note is basso Ricardo Lugo; part-time lawyer, part time narrator, “Alfieri” not only provides segues between scenes, he brings a welcome hint of humor in the face of tragedy.
Opera has been the butt of too many jokes. It’s considered elitist and out of touch. A new generation of art lovers should discover that grand opera isn’t all Teutonic heroes and dying courtesans; it can be as timely as the fate of the illegal immigrant. Artists like William Bolcom and the late Arnold Weinstein are “bridging” the ever-narrowing gap between musical theater and opera without compromising the esthetics of the former.
With opera being such a tough sell, how did MOT manage to emerge, like a daffodil, every spring for 43 years? Well, its founder, David DiChiera, hasn’t been adverse to risk. He dug into some really tough soil and grew a thing of beauty. He’s stepping down as CEO to work as artistic director. The new man at the top, Wayne S. Brown, is yet another home-grown product, and odds are “the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la” will be back for years to come.
‘A View from the Bridge’
Michigan Opera Theatre at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. 7:30 p.m. April 9, 11 & 12, and 2:30 p.m. April 13. This production is sung in English with English supertitles projected above the stage. 2 hours, 50 minutes; 1 25-minute intermission. $25-125. 313-237-SING. http://www.michiganopera.org