Bruce Beresford’s debut helming for Opera Australia is so solid it overcomes the shortcomings in Andre Previn’s discordant adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” First performed by San Francisco Opera in 1998, Previn’s work is diverting at best and clunky at worst. It doesn’t provide much for the performers to work with, particularly in first act where the tone of the score clashes with the majestic 20th century play. There’s reason enough to stick with it though, and Beresford stays true to the source material with a respectful, and ultimately entertaining reading.
Much of this production’s heat emanates from the casting of Oz Opera’s hunk du jour, Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and local darling Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois. While both are well able to meet the piece’s musical demands, Kenny is a tad too old to contrast Blanche’s sexual allure and seniority despite her convincing portrayal of the character’s descent. She also shows a little weakness at the top of her range, a minor quibble.
Rhodes, all six-pack and towering libido, conquers Stanley’s physical and musical requirements in a thankless vocal role but occasionally appears uncertain of the next step in his characterization.
However, the star of the show is undoubtedly soprano Antoinette Halloran as Stella. Previn reserves his best work for Blanche’s sister with her torn loyalties, and Halloran sustains a sure sound as the character. She also acts with conviction; her chemistry with Rhodes is a major strength of the production.
Tenor Stuart Skelton brightens the second act as Blanche’s clumsy suitor Mitch in an assured, pleasing perf. Strong cameos round out a very capable ensemble.
Beresford’s staging is conventional, the revolving three-space New Orleans tenement allows smooth character moves even if the mechanism itself creaks — as if to emphasize Sydney Opera House’s much-discussed failings as a contemporary venue.
Beresford’s projection of footage from 1940s films provides apt atmosphere and a thoughtful wink to both Williams’ 1947 play and Elia Kazan’s 1951 film version. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the director is confident enough in both cast and material to keep the focus on the action rather than distractions.
The mix of jazz, blues and classical themes in Previn’s score makes for some occasionally uneasy listening, particularly as Williams’ words are merely placed on top, rather than within, the music. And while that music doesn’t quite match the drama, the director and performers do.