"There's only one place that I long to be," sings Rodolpho, an illegal Italian immigrant who unknowingly stirs up the tragic emotions that drive William Bolcom's A View from the Bridge, "and that's New York, and the New York lights."
Rodolpho's innocent delight in the big city - or at least the Red Hook neighborhood of 1950s Brooklyn, where the action takes place - is shattered in the course of this big, powerful opera based on the classic Arthur Miller play.
Premiered in 1999 by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and subsequently presented at New York's Metropolitan Opera, A View from the Bridge arrives in this region Saturday, thanks to Washington National Opera. The company's general director, Placido Domingo, considers it to be one of the best new operas of recent years, and he's not alone. Critical and public reaction to the work has been remarkably positive.
In a 1999 interview, the late Miller said that several composers expressed interest in turning his plays into operatic pieces, especially Death of a Salesman. "I'm not sure that would be a good subject for an opera," Miller said. "A View from the Bridge is different, because it's already operatic as a play."
That's how Bolcom perceives it, too, calling it "perfect for opera." Miller and the late poet and playwright Arnold Weinstein prepared the libretto.
The plot brings brothers Rodolpho and Marco into an Italian-American home alive with tensions. Their cousin Beatrice is married to longshoreman Eddie Carbone, who has grown attracted to his niece Catherine. When Catherine falls for Rodolpho, Eddie's emotions become increasingly frayed.
Beatrice suspects the dark truth about her husband, but not before Eddie's passion leads him to betray the immigrants. In the end, there is no escaping vengeance, violence and death.
"It starts with ordinary people doing ordinary things - that's what's exciting about it," says soprano Catherine Malfitano, who created the role of Beatrice, reprised it at the Met and will sing it in D.C. "But people are never ordinary. Eddie's predicament becomes heightened almost to the scale of a Greek tragedy. [The opera actually uses a Greek chorus technique.] And we can all identify with what's in this story - jealousy, lust or whatever."
The Manhattan-born Malfitano is ideally cast as Beatrice. "I came from an Italian-American background, Sicilian on my father's side," she says. "So that's something I can draw upon. And I grew up in the '50s. The opera is close to self, close to the life I knew."
A View from the Bridge packs a lot of truth into its two eventful acts, and the theatrical power is underlined at every turn by Bolcom's brilliant music, which incorporates pop idioms effortlessly into a sophisticated package. The standard "Paper Doll" makes a telling appearance; a bit of doo-wop does, too.
And there are old-fashioned arias as well, with Rodolpho's soaring reverie about New York's lights the prime example. As Bolcom said before the 1999 premiere, "I wanted the major characters to have tunes with the same accessibility that a good Broadway tune had, in the days when there were good Broadway tunes."
Malfitano, who also starred in two other exceptional Bolcom operas, McTeague (1992) and A Wedding (2004), calls A View from the Bridge "a perfect amalgam of music and theater. And it's written extraordinarily well - orchestrally, vocally, every which way. [Bolcom's] music is always for a purpose, never decorative, never pretty just to be pretty."
Joining the soprano in Washington will be two other outstanding singers who starred in the original Chicago production and again in New York - Kim Josephson as Eddie and Gregory Turay as Rodolpho.
"It's fantastic to do a world premiere," Malfitano says. "But what's even better is to be able to do the piece in several cities. It's a triple joy to come back to it for the third time."
"A View From the Bridge" will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday and Monday and Nov. 17; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 and 14; 2 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues, Northwest. Tickets are $45 to $300. Call 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372, or go to dc-opera.org.