By Jane Rosenberg
Los Angeles. When Andre Previn asserted that A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams was already an opera – just without the singing, he spoke to the essence of the play. With the life and death struggle of Blanche DuBois, we have a dramatic heroine as grand and iconic as any Carmen, Violetta, or Lucia. In bringing the play, Streetcar, to the opera house, Previn and his librettist, Philip Littell, have given us a gift – the chance to experience this masterpiece of American drama in another form. And to pile on the riches: we have Renée Fleming, for whom the opera was created, and a marvelous cast to bring the action to musical life in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
With the orchestra assembled, not in the traditional pit, but onstage behind the singers, and with the singers’ entrances and exits through the orchestra, an immediacy and intimacy is created, which suits the material. New Orleans, a musical and uniquely American city seems to be represented by the presence of the onstage musicians, who become characters in the unfolding drama. Directed by Brad Dalton and described as a semi-staged version of the opera, this very minimal setting conceived by the Lyric Opera of Chicago is immensely effective. Chairs, a table, a bed, and a simple light bulb, functioning as a beacon for the action, seems more than enough to create the claustrophobic atmosphere of the two rooms of Stanley and Stella’s apartment. With the addition of sensitive lighting by Duane Schuler and costumes by Johann Stegmeir, we are transported into a universe not unlike that of Edward Hopper’s.
Previn’s musical interpretation of Streetcar, while not ground breaking, weaves a spell with its echoes of bluesy romanticism. Though hints of Richard Strauss, Barber, Britten, and Gershwin are heard, Previn avoids the trap of clichéd Americana, creating an atmospheric poem of longing, lust, and existential despair. Beautifully conducted by Evan Rogister, the LA Opera Orchestra proves, once again, that they can sensitively deliver the dark and light shadings of any and all of the operatic repertory.
Famously creating the opera for soprano Renée Fleming, Previn’s music allows her to spin her particular brand of magic in her arias (“Soft people have got to shimmer and glow” and “I want magic”) – exquisite vocalizing in the upper range with an expressive pianissimo. In her final aria, “ I can smell the sea air,” the dreaminess works as a counterpoint to the impending disaster – the removal of Blanche to an institution. And though the song is taken nearly word for word from the play, the reference to the sea air pulled me out of the moment, as I pondered where Blanche was in her mind’s eye.
Onstage for nearly the entire production, Fleming creates her own brand of Blanche: fragile emotionally, but with an earthy presence. This Blanche has seen more reality than Stanley, Stella, or Mitch. And though she lives in a world of make-believe, we have no doubt that she has been hardened by her experiences. This is powerfully brought home in her first monologue, “I took the blows on my face.” Fleming’s singing here suggests that Blanche has hidden resources of strength, which allows her to carry on through one trauma after another.
Act Two is emotionally and dramatically the most satisfying of the opera. Alone in the apartment, Blanche discovers a young man at her door dressed in a white suit. She attempts to seduce the boy. Fleming hauntingly sings, “You make my mouth water,” which becomes a reenactment of the past and a window into Blanche’s troubled world. This is quickly followed by a scene with Mitch, the most civilized of Stanley’s poker buddies and a potential husband for Blanche. As performed with a bright and flexible tenor by the superb Anthony Dean Griffey, the pair sings of their hopes and sorrows to poignant effect. And when Fleming sings of her oppressive guilt over the suicide of her young husband – again enthralling us with her performance – I was put in mind of James Joyce’s tormented heroine in his story, The Dead, who grieves over her first love – another case of a tragic, early death.
Playing Stella, the sister who ran away from the past into the arms of Stanley Kowalski, Stacy Tappan proves more than equal to the role – her glowing and expressive soprano embodying both youthful and womanly longing. She is wholly believable as Blanche’s younger sister and just as convincing as a prisoner of desire. Every bit as trapped as Blanche, they are both women without choice in a brutish, man’s world.
Bryan McKinny as Stanley not only looks the part but also conveys the twin qualities of menace and neediness so central to the role. Without benefit of an aria to bolster his performance, bass baritone McKinny sings with enough power and conviction to make his character soar as the perpetrator of disaster. Even when conveying rage, McKinny’s voice is never strident, but remains fluid and rich.
As for the rape scene, Previn wisely chooses to score an orchestral interlude – a kind of dark and menacing Gershwin-esque cityscape. Blocked from the audience’s view by seven actors dressed as seven Stanleys who look on at the violence, the magnitude of the crime is made all the more real by this illustration of what it means to be overpowered by brute force.
In the parts of Eunice, the upstairs neighbor, and the young paperboy who is nearly seduced by Blanche, Victoria Livengood and Cullen Gandy are flawless. Rounding out the cast is Joshua Guerrero as Steve Hubbell and two actors, Robert Shampain and Cynthia Marty as the medical personnel. The doctor and nurse who take Blanche away are non-singing roles, creating a very clever divide between the world of our protagonists (in song) and the world outside.
“Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Blanche. Fleming then sings again and again: “whoever you are.” As this last phrase delicately floats on the air, the character of Blanche turns from substance to spirit remaining entrenched in our collective imaginations thanks to Williams and Previn.
* * * * * * * *
Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera.
To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.