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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Opera Review: Next Stop, Carnegie Hall

André Previn’s Streetcar finally arrives in New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire,
Thursday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Richard Termine © Richard Termine,
courtesy Carnegie Hall Public Relations Department.
Sometimes public transportation can be slow to arrive. Take Andre Previn's first opera: A Streetcar Named Desire which rolled into New York last night, fifteen years after its premiere at the San Francisco Opera. Here, the score was played by the ever-reliable Orchestra of St. Luke’s under the baton of Ms. Fleming’s regular collaborator Patrick Summers. This was a "semi-staged" production, directed by Brad Dalton.

Mr. Previn's adaptation of the 1947 Tennessee Williams play (the libretto is by Philip Littel) featured Renee Fleming (this year’s Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist) in the central role of Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle without a dime. Her decision to move into a tiny New Orleans apartment with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley has disastrous consequences.

Blanche fits Ms. Fleming’s smooth, creamy soprano like a torn chiffon dress, with the character's fantastical nature expressed through her committed, slightly aloof acting style. One of the twisted pleasures of this show is watching the diva strip herself to the core, revealing the instability and ultimate madness in Blanche as her domestic situation worsens. It’s her most intense role since Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, a role she sang at the Met in 1999, a year after Streetcar premiered.

This is Mr. Previn’s first opera. The score assimilates the orchestral sweep of Richard Strauss with leitmotifs that represent each character: a sultry descending note-row for Blanche and a hopeful upward surge of Stella. Puccini-like melodies are hinted at but not always explored. Stanley is represented by stark, slab-like chords. Mr. Previn serves up a thick gumbo of orchestration,  peppered with jazzy flourishes of saxophone and trumpet to remind listeners of the opera's Big Easy setting.

The heavy orchestral fog only lifts in Blanche’s arias. The most important of these is the yearning “I want magic,” a manifesto describing the central vulnerability of the increasingly unstable heroine. The second comes at the opera’s end in a long shattering monologue that culminates in her trip to the asylum. In the final mad scene, blanche’s descending tone-row finally disintegrates into scattered notes, mirroring the state of her shattered mind.

New Zealand basso-hunk Teddy Tahu Rhodes was a growling, physical Stanley Kowalski. He prowled the stage with his barely contained dark energy, bald head gleaming and muscles flexed in an almost-parody of manhood, a bullying would-be Don Giovanni with a mile-wide mean streak. A strong actor, Mr. Rhodes did well with a completely unsympathetic character.

Susanna Philips’ Stella was complex: a victim of abuse who knows what she wants from her captor husband. (Mr. Previn's score does not flinch from the ugly subject of domestic violence.) The finely drawn portrait culminates in the Act I scene when Stanley slaps her. She walks out, he yells her name and wins her back, taking her to bed. Her following wordless vocalise of sexual satisfaction (accounted by a slinky solo bass line) is one of Mr. Previn’s master-strokes.

Blanche’s long dark night of the soul is indirectly triggered when she is courted and then rejected by Mitch, played pitch-perfect by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. Mr. Griffey makes this sweet southern mama’s boy into a tender three-dimensional lad with intelligent, pointed singing and clarion tone. When Stanley gleefully unveils Blanche’s sordid past, Mr. Griffey changes to an attitude of self-righteous indignation. At the opera’s end when Blanche is exiled, his guilty expression is almost visceral.

The show used creative, lurid lighting effects and the narrow lip of the stage to effectively portray the heat and claustrophobia of the little Elysian Fields apartment where the whole drama takes place. Minimal furniture-a bed, a poker table was hustled about by a small corps of muscled Kowalski doppelgängers. Their overwhelming presence underlined Stanley's bully-boy authority and the culpability of other men in allowing for the horror of domestic violence to be all too commonplace.

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