Review: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

There is so much music implicit in the melancholy prose of Tennessee Williams' 1947 "A Streetcar Named Desire" that the notion of adding more, by turning the play into an actual opera, becomes an exercise in redundancy.

There is so much music implicit in the melancholy prose of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 “A Streetcar Named Desire” that the notion of adding more, by turning the play into an actual opera, becomes an exercise in redundancy. For all its fleeting moments when words and music do coalesce into something approaching dramatic impact — and for all the hoopla with which the San Francisco Opera has assumed its own mantle of glory in inaugurating the work in a $ 1,500-ticket gala of seismic significance — Andre Previn’s attempt at an operatic “Streetcar” runs off the track.

Philip Littell’s libretto reduces Williams’ play to a usable skeleton respectful of the outline and the language of the original, adding little. He has wisely rejected the “moralizing” that ends with the separation of the Kowalskis after Stanley’s rape of Blanche that Williams was obliged to countenance in his screenplay. One minor role, that of the Hispanic seller of “flores para los muertos,” has actually been expanded in the libretto to set up an ensemble scene. Blanche’s several extended speeches, which in the play hover at the edge of music, make the easy transition into full-scale arias.

These moments, too, form the least-worst of Previn’s hugely ambitious and ultimately overreaching musical setting: From a jagged, frazzled recitation as Blanche recounts the deaths of the folks back at Belle Reve and the loss of the property itself, to a serene folksong as she envisions, her mind unhinged but now at peace, her last days on her imaginary lover’s phantom yacht.

Previn has built a fair reputation involved with other people’s music on symphony-orchestra podiums, and it shows; his score veers widely among current and recent musical styles: from a sanitized blues to honor the play’s New Orleans setting to the surge of Benjamin Britten’s ocean via a bit of Mahler at his most purple. Previn himself conducts the first four (of eight) performances, replaced on Oct. 2 by Patrick Summers.

What is most fatally lacking, however, is a musical point of view to shine any kind of light on the greatness of Williams’ play and, thus, to justify this misguided effort to drag it into the alien atmosphere of overstuffed, overpriced grand opera.

Director Colin Graham is a practiced hand at putting over premieres of problematic new operas. He staged San Francisco’s “Dangerous Liaisons,” also to a Littell libretto, in 1994 and has created a fair replica of the Williams drama , even when the music attempts to lead him elsewhere.

San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri, widely quoted as having dreamed of an operatic “Streetcar” for years and as once having dangled the prospect in front of Leonard Bernstein, has given the work the full grand-opera treatment. Michael Yeargan’s splendid set — two revolving units — form the Kowalskis’ disheveled apartment, with Thomas J. Munn’s projections to serve as pictorial supertitles. Blanche sings of Stanley as a throwback to the age of the apes, and, by golly, the stage is engulfed in jungle foliage.

As Blanche there is the fast-rising Renee Fleming, who by current estimate can do no wrong; the strain that comes across in her performance, however, is not that of a bygone belle coping with decay, but of a lovable soprano coping with tragic accents the music will not let her feel. Rodney Gilfry is cast similarly adrift by the facelessness of his music; in a role eternally overshadowed by the image of its film interpreter, his Stanley does, at least, execute an admirable stab at not being Brando.

Anthony Dean Griffey’s lumbering Mitch, and Elizabeth Futral’s rather chirpy Stella are as OK as the music demands.

“Streetcar” has already been booked into the San Diego Opera in the year 2000 ; operatic honchos from several other companies, including Los Angeles and Chicago, looked in at San Francisco last week, along with a 140-member corps of the international musical press. The world hungers for the Great American Opera; the delusion was in trying to extract it from the Great American Play.

A Streetcar Named Desire

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco; 3,100 seats; $ 135 top

Production

A San Francisco Opera presentation of an opera in three acts with music by Andre Previn and libretto by Philip Littell, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Colin Graham. Conductor, Previn, with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Michael Yeargan; lighting, Thomas J. Munn. Opened, reviewed Sept. 19, 1998. Running time: 3 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Blanche - Renee Fleming
Stanley - Rodney Gilfry
Stella - Elizabeth Futral
Mitch - Anthony Dean Griffey
With: Judith Forst, Matthew Lord, Luis Oropeza, Jeffrey Lentz, Josepha Gayer, Ray Reinhardt, Lynne Soffer.
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