Bernarda Alba

I had always thought of Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba as fundamentally a political play. Michael John LaChiusa's new musical Bernarda Alba reveals the pulsing romantic tragedy that lies under that polemical surface.

Bernarda Alba is a strong-willed matriarch who has just been widowed for the second time. Living with her are her eldest daughter Angustias (child of her first marriage) and her younger daughters Magadalena, Amelia, Martirio, and Adela (children of the husband just died). Completing the household are Bernarda's aged, possibly senile mother, Maria Josepha, and a trio of female servants led by Poncia, the maid who has been with Bernarda all of her adult life.

Bernarda has decreed that the family must remain inside the house for a protracted period of mourning. Angustias, however, is allowed a courtship (through her open window, every night at midnight) with one Pepe el Romano. Although Bernarda does not fully approve of this young man—he's handsome but of a lower class, and the sisters agree that he is marrying the unlovely and well-past-30 Angustias for her money (an inheritance from her father)— the marriage plans proceed.

What Bernarda does not know is that Adela, the youngest and most beautiful of her daughters, is in love with Pepe, and is secretly meeting him later each night, after Angustias has closed her window and gone to sleep. Though Poncia tries to warn the haughty Bernarda of this dissension in the ranks, she refuses to hear it. The results prove catastrophic.

LaChiusa's musicalization of this story is almost entirely sung-through, and almost exclusively devoted to the emotional states of the women who are trapped inside this house. Their repression is mostly sexual, yet LaChiusa finds shadings in the states of minds of each of his characters, which is the play's great strength and surprise. The approach is unexpectedly potent.

The centerpiece is a long scene in which each of the five daughters sings of her longings and desires. Magdalena views her surroundings as a prison. Angustias, in one of the score's loveliest and most powerful songs, wishes against the odds for a happy romance where she is loved for herself. Amelia prays for simple, abstract happiness. Martirio, who is homely and walks with a pronounced limp, dreams of an alternative childhood in which she is pretty and popular. And Adele fantasizes of a union with her beloved Pepe. It's a thrillingly ecovative sequence that gives vibrant inner life to all five of these complex women.

This production at Lincoln Center Theater is beautifully designed, with Christopher Barreca's simple unit set and Stephen Strawbridge's gorgeous lighting providing the perfect stark, solemn environment for the show, and Toni-Leslie James's costumes—variations on black mourning, with one alluring (though never worn) bright green dress offering the only contrast/relief—are precisely what's called for. Graciela Daniele's staging is less assured, especially in certain stylized aspects, such as some jolting flamenco choreography in a couple of places, and the use of two women actors to represent the (mostly male) outside world beyond Bernarda Alba's house.

The cast is generally outstanding. Candy Buckley is authoritative and earthy as Poncia; as the most grounded character in the piece, she is both our guide into it and its firm, solid anchor. Laura Shoop and Nancy Ticotin do fine work as the two younger maids and the chorus. Yolande Bevan is near heartbreaking as Bernarda's lonely mother. Judith Blazer (Magdalena), Sally Murphy (Amelia), and Daphne Rubin-Vega (Martirio) are splendid, providing strong acting and singing; Saundra Santiago is even better, making the most of Angustias's emotional solo and creating the most memorable characterization in the show (no small feat, for the smug and jealous Angustias is perhaps the least likable woman in the story). Only Phylicia Rashad and Nikki M. James let the show down, the former never mustering the fierceness and determination that are Bernarda Alba's hallmarks, and the latter lacking (perhaps) the experience to fully depict equal fierceness and determination within Adela's forbidden passion.

But overall, I was both impressed and moved with Bernarda Alba. In its concentration on the single theme of emotional repression, it's insightful and ferocious. Sad, lonely, wasted lives are illuminated with piercing honesty here; a fine achievement indeed for a contemporary chamber opera by one of our most prolific and ambitious theatre composers.