A Streetcar Named Desire – 27 June

A Streetcar Named Desire [UK premiere]

Blanche DuBois – Renée Fleming
Stella Kowalski – Janice Watson
Stanley Kowalski – Rodney Gilfry
Harold Mitchell (Mitch) – Anthony Dean Griffey
Eunice Hubbell – Elizabeth Sikora
Steve Hubbell – Neil Jenkins
A Young Collector – Jeffrey Lentz
Pablo Gonzales – Ian Midlane
Nurse – Abigail Boyd
Doctor – Philip Tsaras

Brad Dalton – Director

London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 27 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A Romantic opera composed at the end of the 20th century? Commissioned by San Francisco Opera and first produced by it in 1998, André Previn’s operatic version of the Tennessee Williams play is finding a foothold in the repertory in a way that perhaps no other opera in the last decade has done. It has taken five years to reach the UK in what I suppose must be termed a ’semi-staged’ performance by the LSO with three of the original principals. One wonders whether the Royal Opera has considered mounting a production. If not, then it ought to, since I believe that this work is a firm indication that there is still life in the form and notion of a ’traditional’ lyric opera. Other recent operas by, for instance, John Adams and Philip Glass, not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen, essentially fall out of that category and so are not strictly comparable.

Falling into a conventional three-act structure, Previn and his librettist Philip Littell have structured the work in such a way as to place the focus firmly on the role of Blanche DuBois, taken here, as in the premiere, with stunning conviction by Renée Fleming. The part was written for her and one can sense the composer revelling in providing challenge and reward in equal measure for his chosen singer.

The part is demanding enough in terms of sheer physical stamina in that Blanche is on-stage for virtually the whole of the opera’s duration, but Previn carefully paces his singer by providing music that is fundamentally grateful to the voice. Her Act Three aria “I want magic” has already acquired a separate life, and there are other lyrical passages such as the touching “Soft people have got to shimmer and glow”, with apposite colour provided by the celesta, and, most ravishing and affecting of all, her final aria “I can smell the sea air” in which Blanche dreams of a death at sea to which Previn responds with a Korngold-tinged seascape which is profoundly moving and heart-tugging.

There are other, darker and impassioned scenes such as Blanche’s grim reflection on death and its cost – emotional and financial – which is the first indication of a troubled character, shortly after the start of the opera. In Act Three, Blanche retorts testily to the question as to why she is constantly taking baths – hitherto a matter for rueful amusement. She replies with an angular, disjointed line “I have to take hot baths for my nerves” and it becomes apparent that her mind is starting to turn. The conclusion of the second act is essentially Blanche’s extended confession of the guilt she feels at having motivated her first, young husband to commit suicide following her discovery of his homosexuality and her subsequent expressed revulsion: “You disgust me”. There is music and characterisation in this scene of enormous power and dramatic weight. Here, as throughout, Fleming was utterly convincing and completely compelling.

Although focussing on Blanche and her gradually disintegrating mental state, the other main characters are similarly – though not as extensively – fleshed out, with Stella’s early arietta “I can hardly stand it when he’s away for a night” encapsulating her personality succinctly and aptly. Although Janice Watson was not a member of the original cast, she was nevertheless thoroughly credible in this key role, torn between her love for Blanche her sister, and Stanley her husband.

As portrayed by Rodney Gilfry, Stanley exuded a heady combination of barely suppressed violence, resentment and sexuality. The scene where he relates to Stella the reports of Blanche’s supposed carryings-on found Gilfry relishing the text and Previn’s pointed response to it. Stanley’s duet with Stella – to all intents and purposes a love scene – is another example of the characters coming to life through apposite music and believable performances.

Anthony Dean Griffey presented a creditable would-be suitor for Blanche, and the suggestion of an ageing ’mother’s boy’ anxious to escape the tug of the apron strings was well conveyed by his firm yet lyrical tenor. One might argue that the Act Two scene between Blanche and Mitch does rather ’hang fire’; on the other hand the need for some relaxation of tension is a necessary contrast at this point in the drama.

André Previn cites Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten as being composers whose operatic works he particularly admires, and yet there is very little direct influence of either readily detectable in Streetcar, lest it be in the generally lyrical manner of the former and the ’Grimes’-like interludes of the latter. These, like those in Britten’s masterpiece, or the operas of Alban Berg, serve not only a functional scene-dividing purpose, but also to reflect on the characters and their demeanour and behaviour. That depicting Stanley’s rape of Blanche brought to mind a similar instrumental depiction of violation in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia (graphically described by that opera’s first conductor, Ernest Ansermet, as “having the rhythms of copulation”) or, perhaps even more so, that in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Actually, in the directness of some of the word-setting and the onward propulsion of the action, I was put in mind of the operas of Gian-Carlo Menotti, whose name is unfashionable to mention, but whose influence on America vernacular opera cannot be overlooked or understated. With Menotti, Previn shares a penchant for directness of expression and an essentially lyrical musical vocabulary.

Mention of various composers as being influences on Previn’s score might suggest a work that is somehow derivative or imitative. To be sure, this is an eclectic work, firmly rooted in the operatic style of the late Romantic era, and if clear models come to mind it is surely those of Puccini and Richard Strauss, whose Der Rosenkavalier is affectionately alluded to when Mitch presents flowers to Blanche. André Previn has, nevertheless created a world all his own. There are some motives which permeate the score – Wagner-like – most noticeably the chord which right at the start of the opera seems to suggest the sound of traffic but which later on becomes associated with Blanche’s dubious past, invariably commented on by distinctly sleazy and slithery trombone or saxophone phrases.

The staging was, on this occasion, necessarily limited to a platform behind the orchestra. The cast was costumed, and although there were limited props, it was possible for a semblance of a dramatic presentation to be given, helped by some atmospheric lighting. Needless to say, like any opera, A Streetcar Named Desire cries out for a full staging. In the meantime, this performance (and the one two nights earlier) under the direction of the composer, with members of the cast for whom the roles were written, is an occasion likely to be remembered and treasured by those present. If vocally and dramatically it belonged to the charismatic Renée Fleming, the contribution of the LSO must not go unmentioned. They played superbly throughout and with evident affection for the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, the composer of this wonderful opera.

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