Michael John LaChiusa's musical adaptation of Federico García Lorca's dark classic is impeccable.
Bernarda Alba is an adaption with truncated title of Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, with whom LaChiusa has collaborated before with mixed results, this 90-minute, intermissionless compression of the hothouse play is absolutely stunning in every possible category, from the stark, dirty-white-walled Christopher Barreca set with 10 straight-back, caned chairs to Toni-Leslie James's primarily black dresses with swirling skirts to Stephen Strawbridge's sometimes blazing lighting to Scott Stauffer's crisp sound. Even the placement of the orchestra, conducted by Deborah Abramson, in a row atop the set -- as if the musicians were notes in a treble clef -- is unusually effective.
The raw material -- and it's surely raw from an emotional standpoint -- is the Lorca classic in which the widow Alba attempts to keep a tight rein on her five quite different daughters in 1930s Spain. To the tyrannical mother's dismay, she ultimately finds that repression backfires. (Lorca is writing allegorically, needless to say.) Meanwhile, her daughters, who have very little in common with the five busy-bee Bennet girls in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, run into conflicts among themselves. Much of their fierce squabbling is over Pepe, the unseen townie whom at least three of the siblings have their eye on.
But plot isn't the point here; passion is, whether expressed or suppressed. LaChiusa and Daniele are determined to illustrate passion as vividly as possible in what is being called a musical but could just as easily be described as a dance piece with singing, an oratorio, or performance art. It's a beautifully seamless fusion of all these influences, and it works from the moment when the 10 cast members enter and sit in the row of chairs placed in front of the upstage wall. The flamenco-like stomping of their feet (flamenco consultant Dionisia Garcia, shoes mostly by Menkes) is as riveting as the "five, six, seven, eight" with which A Chorus Line commands immediate attention.
The insistent stomping also represents LaChiusa at last making a convincing statement of his long-held belief that rhythm in music is every bit as important as melody. He has said that he sought each character's individual rhythm before he began to write, and it sounds as if he means what he said. LaChiusa has also intensely contemplated flamenco tradition without striving to ape it. Beyond that, he's undoubtedly listened to whatever he could locate of the "cante jondo" (or "deep song") that Lorca felt was playing like unheard background music in his plays. Though many of the songs that LaChiusa provided for such projects as Marie Christine, Little Fish, and this season's See What I Wanna See registered as under-developed, all of the songlets in Bernarda Alba seem endemic to the composer-lyricist's unifying purpose.
Lorca, who understood the music of poetry, steeped his works in music; so it isn't far-fetched to suppose that, had it occurred to him to compose The House of Bernarda Alba as an opera, he would have done so. It's never safe to speculate on how a writer might react to adaptations of his plays, but the temptation is to declare that Lorca would have profoundly appreciated this one. It's even possible that, just as it's now difficult to watch George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion without hearing the songs that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote for My Fair Lady, Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba will become more popular in this country than Lorca's grim, impassioned play. That's how powerful a work of art it is.