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Composer Andre Previn has observed that all of the plays of Tennessee Williams are essentially amenable to opera, and he may well be right. (One can imagine operas of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Sweet Bird of Youth improving on the originals.) Previn’s whack at A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened in San Francisco in 1998 and was televised on PBS later that year, finally receives its Los Angeles premiere in a cannily conceived pocket production at L.A. Opera, starring two of its original principals, superstar Renee Fleming as Blanche DuBois and Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch (each of whom has won four Grammys in the interim).
The stripped-down conception of director Brad Dalton, arriving via the Washington National Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, suits the material well, here placing the orchestra at the rear of the action, and the singers forward on a raked platform that leans into the usual orchestra pit. Since librettist Philip Littell has remained so steadfastly faithful to the play’s text while skillfully distilling it into vocal lines, the drama here is foremost, and well-served by thrusting it downstage.
Minimal props and no scenery may run counter to grand opera expectations, but it forces the audience to engage intimately with the performers by the free play of imagination, allowing the subtleties of performance and particularly delicate and expressive lighting to convey the profound empathies that lie at the heart of Williams’ compassionate view of fragile fantasy and unquenchable desire.
A Streetcar Named Desire remains a durable classic, although its reliance on the ubiquity of rigid gender roles has caused it necessarily to recede into the aesthetic remove of a period piece, which paradoxically permits it to be less anachronistic when translated into operatic form. Lyric voicing meshes well with its innate poetry and makes it possible to access the timeless drama from a fresh and distinct perspective. Previn’s felicitous writing shows the singers off to excellent advantage, and while few of the showcase melodies are memorable, the big numbers, functioning as monologues, do provide considerable punch within the context of the developing tragedy, strategically well-placed at the curtain of each of the three acts.
Nevertheless, director Dalton understands acutely that this show will stand or fall on the credence of the performances, and certainly by conventional operatic standards, the acting here is uniformly exceptional. Fleming demonstrates keen vulnerability within Blanche’s posturing delusions, her star quality subsumed by commitment to character. Stella (Stacey Tappan) might be said to acquire even an more compelling stature here than in the play, and the sense of shared sisterly sexual hunger rather starkly portrays that the singular difference in their fates is the protection, such as it is, of a husband.
As that man, the role of Stanley Kowalski (Ryan McKinny) has long labored under the shadow of Marlon Brando’s electrifyingly original brand of ham. It can be argued that Williams’ own Stanley is in fact less feral than cunning, and indeed rather more of a contrasting counterweight to the sympathetic and less charismatic Mitch, Blanche’s hapless suitor, than the central destructive life-force Brando made of him. McKinny plays the part entirely differently, less hulking (and more buff), as a brute man of limited vision. (Indeed, borrowing motifs from later Williams, Dalton uses a non-singing chorus of bare-chested sex-object Stanleys to amp up the oppressive heat and bulk of male aggression.) Griffey, meanwhile, makes a superb Mitch, cementing his stature of one of the finest singing character actors in American opera (Peter Grimes, Of Mice and Men).
For all its theatrical satisfactions (and the second and third acts in particular accumulate escalating power), this opera is ultimately less distinguished by its music. The large orchestra, playing superb arrangements boasting a skillful charge of flavor in the interplay of sections, supports the action effectively, but the rather meticulous development of themes tends to the pedestrian, and the idiom so conservative, even for the late forties setting, as to eschew any palpable sense that this musical drama is embodied in its composition. There is an almost strenuous avoidance of the sounds of New Orleans, or of jazz, or of any dissonance that would be out of place in music anytime after Richard Strauss. One hears craft more than personal obsession, a dutiful intelligence rather than a compelling drive to communicate. Too much is made, most unfairly, of Previn’s impressive Hollywood career, and one can well understand his defensive flight from it. But while he can proficiently mimic urgency, as a composer he feels more often dedicated than engaged.
As Tennessee Williams operas go, I far prefer the 1971 Summer and Smoke of Lee Hoiby (with a libretto by Lanford Wilson), which locally premiered at USC a few seasons back. Hoiby may not have had the manifold talents of Previn, but he succeeded at penetrating to the heart of the material to express the essence of Williams in fundamentally musical terms. Save for Fleming’s understandable advocacy, Previn’s opera probably does not seem destined for the future canon, while Hoiby’s, however unproduced, still could make a credible claim to it.
Venue: Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, downtown (through May 24)
Cast: Renee Fleming, Ryan McKinny, Stacey Tappan, Anthony Dean Griffey, Victoria Livengood, Joshua Guerrero, Cullen Gandy, Robert Shampain, Cynthia Marty
Composer: Andre Previn
Libretto: Philip Littell, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
Conductor: Evan Rogister
Director: Brad Dalton
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Costume Designer: Johann Stegmeir
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