at Lyric Opera, through October 29

A View From the Bridge

at Lyric Opera, through November 5

By Lee Sandlin

I’m not normally upbeat about the future of opera, but the start of the new season at the Lyric has me feeling positively jaunty. First came a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff, followed by the world premiere of William Bolcom’s new opera, A View From the Bridge, based on the Arthur Miller play. But it wasn’t so much the operas that cheered me up as it was the way the audiences responded to them. Falstaff had them respectful, mildly amused, and moderately approving; A View From the Bridge held them spellbound and filled the hall with tumultuous applause. In the lobby afterward I kept hearing words like “wonderful” and “spectacular.” It was genuinely heartening to see an edgy, dissonant, modern opera trump Verdi.

Not that I have anything against Falstaff. It’s one Verdi opera I could stand to have put on more often, since I’ve never seen a production that really nailed it. It’s Verdi’s last opera–he was 80 when he finished it–and his oddest: an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor that spins Shakespeare’s knockabout foolery into an evanescent dream. The old, gross, scheming knight Falstaff is repeatedly humiliated by the virtuous women of Windsor–but even though their practical jokes gradually escalate into demented persecution, he remains unscathed and unrepentant, a bubble in the froth. Nothing happens, nothing matters, and nothing changes. The opera is made up wholly of delicate flourishes and comic grace notes, as though Verdi had morphed into P.G. Wodehouse.

Falstaff has never been that popular onstage, even though musically it may be the most impressive thing Verdi ever wrote. None of his other operas has such a fascinating score. After a lifetime devoted to forceful and economical craftsmanship, to taking the shortest possible route to the strongest possible dramatic point, he at last allowed himself to relax and to admit to a secret taste for fanciful irrelevance. Almost every page holds some odd curlicue of ornamentation, some delicately witty allusion to Mozart or Beethoven or Wagner, some esoteric musical problem solved just for the fun of it. The mood is one of iridescent play, like a rainbow over a waterfall.

The problem is that what enchants on paper (or on CD, which lets you keep going back to catch what you missed) doesn’t necessarily charm in performance: transferred to the physicality of the opera house, some of Falstaff’s airiest effects come out smeared. A deeper issue is that Verdi is so uncharacteristically focused on his ornate margins that he neglects the main musical action. The score is always exquisite to listen to, but it’s all melting nuance. There aren’t any of those ear-candy melodies that make even his worst operas so catchy, and there’s only one showstopping aria–which is inscrutably handed off to a secondary character, as though the composer had been too distracted to notice who got top billing. For all its intellectual excitement, the work can be pretty monotonous onstage. This is particularly true toward the end, when Falstaff wanders through Windsor Forest at night pursued by his mysterious tormentors and the music floats into a weird realm of extravagant fantasy. It’s all gorgeous, and it’s fascinating to know Verdi had it in him. But dramatically it grows inert: you start longing for the practical jokers to pull the plug and go on to some other victim.

This means that a successful production has to work hard to ground the fantasy in something tangible: the more real the world, the more effective the drifting oddity of the music. This isn’t the route the Lyric team chose. Their Falstaff is oddity from beginning to end–Windsor Forest winds up looking like the only sane place on earth. At least you can tell that the tree on the back wall during the last act is a tree and the moon the moon. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but until then I couldn’t figure out what the hell anything onstage was supposed to be.

The set is a cavernous box of unvarnished wood, irregularly lined with shuttered windows and closed doors and dominated by a huge oval opening at the top–like a cross between an old barn and the inside of a guitar. There are rows of potted orange trees, the furniture is cut and painted to look like buildings, everybody wears outfits that look like 16th-century Dutch fashions on acid, Falstaff himself spends most of the action squatting in a creepy red stairwell under an open trap door that looks sort of like a gigantic mutant wooden clam. Why? Beats me. But that’s life in the postmodern opera house. Most productions these days are like bad David Lynch dreams. I wouldn’t mind if the dramatic action were rendered with any clarity. But more good things than usual are lost in this Lyric production. I particularly regret the subplot of the young lovers Fenton and Nannetta, which prompted a couple of Verdi’s most transparently beautiful love duets–you can’t focus on the music when the singers are playing hide-and-seek in an absurdist maze of renaissance skyscrapers, or chests of drawers, or whatever that heap of objects in the middle of the stage is.

It’s too bad, because Inva Mula as Nannetta and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Fenton are both charming. But then I thought the singing of the whole cast was pretty good–especially Lucio Gallo as Master Ford and Kallen Esperian as Alice Ford. The only big musical disappointment was the conductor, Antonio Pappano. This was the first time I’d heard him live, and he might have been having a bad night, or he might have been defeated by the underpowered Lyric orchestra or the hall’s notoriously muddy acoustics. Anyway, his reading was slack and uninflected, with none of the verve of his opera recordings.

In the end, like every other production of the opera I’ve ever seen, the Lyric was betting everything on its Falstaff. It had the fabulously successful and acclaimed young baritone Bryn Terfel, and that turned out to be good enough. I saw him a week or so into the run, and he seemed to have let his intensity slip since opening night; he was so loose in the opening scene he could barely be bothered to stay in sync with the orchestra. But by the second act he’d roused himself and was singing with his usual commanding power. He may not be the best Falstaff I’ve ever heard–I still prefer Tito Gobbi, on the old von Karajan recording, who had a voice as dark as a Rembrandt painting–but he gave the role his trademark clarity and force. And at this level of accomplishment why quibble?

I do think he could have varied his attack a little more to fight off the score’s cumulative monotony. But he chose to hold the audience’s interest by offering a full-blown dramatic performance. Not many singers have the guts for that; they put all their subtlety into their singing and are content to act as if they were doing a silent-movie pantomime. But Terfel’s take on Falstaff was subtle and moving–he was consistently persuasive as an old man (it was a shock to remember he’s in his early 30s) and even offered insights you don’t get from professional stage actors. I was particularly struck by his manner at the beginning of the third act, after he’d been dunked in the river; his every move suggested despair and exhaustion, as though Falstaff’s lifelong self-delusion had finally worn out. Even nicer was the way he played the opening expository scene, idly waving a knife around in a state of sozzled belligerence; he had such a menacing air I half expected him to cut somebody. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that jolly, lovable old Falstaff was a dangerous drunk. This was a moment that could stand with the best-acted Shakespearean Falstaff I know, Orson Welles’s in Chimes at Midnight. It made me hope that Terfel keeps playing and refining the role–he may yet find the production he deserves.

No one’s likely to complain about the production of Bolcom’s A View From the Bridge. Whatever doubts there might be about the opera’s long-term viability, the Lyric production is surely going to be the best it’ll ever get. It was an exhilarating shock to go from Falstaff’s languidly dateless surrealism to this brilliantly concrete and atmospheric vision of Brooklyn in the 1950s; if nothing else it was proof that the art of opera production hasn’t been completely swallowed up in fatuity.

The set, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a dark and complex puzzle box–as though M.C. Escher had gone in for industrial grime. Half the stage holds the tenement apartment of our doomed longshoreman hero, Eddie Carbone, the other holds the gloomy dockside where he works. Bleak catwalks and railings cut the space above the stage, and moody period photographs slowly shift across the back walls. Hovering over everything at a steep angle is the Brooklyn Bridge. This might sound overly cluttered, but stage director Frank Galati uses the space with ease and authority. The ceaselessly shifting balance of people onstage, the constant subliminal changes in lighting and mood, the unnoticed details of the set that suddenly become significant–it all serves to hold the eye wonderfully well without getting in the way of the action or distracting from the music. This is just what stage direction is supposed to do and hardly ever does; after this production, and his radiantly beautiful Traviata (which the Lyric revived last year), Galati is starting to look like the gold standard in contemporary opera.

Yet all the wizardry and prestidigitation made me wonder if I was being hustled. The great strength of Galati’s Traviata was that it was simple: the atmosphere was ornately seedy, but he trusted the opera to work straightforwardly on its own terms. There’s not a lot of trust on display in this production. Everything is so thoroughly worked, every potentially dull spot so carefully enlivened, every weird dissonance so grounded in a dramatic context that it starts to seem like a trick intended to make the underlying material look a lot better than it is.

But then that problem goes back to the original play. Miller said he based it on a true incident from his Brooklyn neighborhood–a dockworker consumed by an unconscious desire for his young niece rats out her illegal-immigrant lover to the INS and brings disaster on himself. Miller’s version of this story is as powerful as anything he ever wrote: an unforgettable image of an inarticulate man torn apart by psychic pressures he can neither identify nor understand. But Miller couldn’t bring himself to trust the story; he had to overlay it with literary pretension in the form of a narrator, a preposterously cultured neighborhood lawyer who keeps making esoteric classical allusions (at one point he calls Al Capone “the last of the Carthaginians”). This is the sort of stupidity that often afflicts American artists; they’re afraid of coming off as ignorant hicks, so they load on the high-culture gimmickry.

The libretto, credited to Miller and Arnold Weinstein, only makes the problem worse. The lawyer is still prominently on display, droning on about Carthage and Syracuse and fate, but now there’s also a Greek chorus of Brooklynites watching over the action and chanting ominous prophecies (“Eddie didn’t know he had a destiny”). God knows, the opera house isn’t where you go when you want a return to stark simplicity, but this is absurd. There’s nothing wrong with the original story–the more plainly told the better. The proof is that, even with all these distracting excrescences, the Lyric audience was held as though they were watching a thriller.

A similar failure of nerve insinuates itself into the music. Bolcom deserves all the praise he’s gotten for writing such a spikily dissonant score that works so well dramatically–I didn’t see a single walkout all night, and that’s practically a miracle with a new opera. But at least on first hearing, long stretches of it seemed to be generic Euro-academic modernism, heavy on harshly chromatic recitatives and sparing with melody. I don’t want to sound like Pat Buchanan here, but shouldn’t an American tragedy sound more, well, American? It’s true a few snatches of popular music and a couple of serenely lilting arias have been incorporated into the harsh texture. But wouldn’t it have been more daring to reproduce the sound world of midcentury Brooklyn–with the endless babble of competing melodies you can hear in any working-class American neighborhood–and reserve the astringent dissonance for the darker psychological drama underneath?

An unfortunate side effect of Bolcom’s stylistic choice is that the individual characters are flattened out. Take the hero’s long-suffering wife, Beatrice, sung by Catherine Malfitano. Malfitano is the most strident soprano currently on earth, yet she comes off as subdued and almost unobtrusive. If she can’t shatter her way through to the foreground, it’s no surprise that the other characters are smothered. They all sing reasonably well, but they save themselves for their rare big moments. When Gregory Turay as the young immigrant Rodolpho reached his big aria, “The Lights of New York,” he cut loose with such exuberance you would have thought he was a Broadway understudy stepping in at the last moment for the ailing star. Kim Josephson wasn’t as lucky; the destiny-bound Eddie is a complex and demanding role with no compensatory showstoppers, and Josephson had to act his way out. He did a creditable job, though he was no match for Terfel as Falstaff. In the play Eddie is so tightly wound he’s a prototype for Robert De Niro in Raging Bull; Josephson’s Eddie was more of a good-hearted lug who gets out of his depth–it’s as if Ralph Kramden had gone over to the dark side.

This is what makes me wonder if the opera has a serious shot at making it into the repertoire. The lead roles are horrendously complicated and unrewarding, and the tone is relentlessly dark. If it weren’t for the brilliance of the production, the opera might make a stultifying evening’s entertainment.

But it isn’t stultifying now. Whether most of the praise goes to Galati, or Bolcom, or Miller, there’s no denying that this production is powerful and exciting, a show that grips its audience in a way few modern operas do. Neither the libretto nor the score is a masterwork, but they’re both very good. And these days that’s what counts. Opera has become dull in recent years because the repertoire has been frozen–opera houses are still making the backbone of their schedule those same weary Aidas and Toscas and Figaros they’ve been putting on for generations. A steady supply of good operas, not the occasional isolated masterpiece, is what keeps the form evolving. If the Lyric and other companies keep commissioning works as solid as this, there’s good reason to hope that opera in the next century won’t be just a fossilized relic of the last.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Rest-Lyric Opera of Chicago.