Lyric Opera’s inspired cast and artful staging can’t make the case for Previn’s pallid “Streetcar”

Wed Mar 27, 2013 at 2:58 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Renée Fleming in Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Despite all the voluminous press releases and the ink that has been spilled since Renée Fleming’s appointment as creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2010, local audiences have have had little opportunity to actually hear her sing. The soprano-administrator’s Chicago stage appearances have been limited to one-off events like the company’s annual Subscriber Appreciation concerts and her inspiration for an operatic comedy night with the Second City troupe. Even with annual appearances at the Met in New York, often in more than one production a season, the Lyric Opera’s creative consultant hasn’t appeared in a full-length opera on Wacker Drive since La Traviata five years ago.

Tuesday night that absence was remedied, sort of, with Fleming starring in the belated Chicago premiere of Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The semi-staged event is not part of the Lyric’s regular season but served as subscriber-bait, with tickets initially only made available to season ticketholders. (That marketing ploy apparently worked since all four performances are sold out.)

Previn’s operatic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic drama debuted in San Francisco in 1998 with Fleming creating the role of Blanche DuBois, the fading southern belle forced to seek refuge in New Orleans with her sympathetic sister Stella and brother-in law Stanley Kowalski, whose brutish treatment sends Blanche’s fragile psyche descending into madness.

Williams’ timeless drama is so incisive in psychological penetration and richly musical in its words and poetic imagery that a score seems almost redundant. And therein lies the problem.

Previn and librettist Philip Littell have done a worthy and respectful adaptation, largely adhering to Williams’ words, with Littell only rarely departing from the text; even then his emendations are done so gracefully that it’s rarely jarring.

The composer’s first opera is crafted with fluency and skill. Previn draws on his jazz background with its bluesy strains–as with Stella’s wordless vocalise after an impassioned session with Stanley—and the music is artfully scored and flows easily, a treatment to Previn’s Hollywood years.

The problem is that Previn’s score is almost completely unmemorable. Vocal lines are cast in an unvaried conversational quasi-recitative. Yet the music rarely stops the play’s action for an insightful respite and never provides any illumination behind the words. Only the little Act 2 aria for Mitch, the mama’s boy who is likely Blanche’s last chance for love, achieves the kind of synthesis of words, music and action that is starkly lacking throughout the rest of the pallid score.

Ultimately, Previn’s relentlessly anonymous music never achieves parity with Williams’ soaring words. Even the two would-be breakout arias for Fleming/Blanche—I want magic! and I can smell the sea air—-don’t come off because Previn’s melodic inspiration is so barren.

Indeed, Previn’s Streetcar throughout feels less like an opera than musical underscoring to a vocalized production of the play. The ephemeral quality of the music was exacerbated by the setup for this event with the orchestra sounding distant and muted, placed onstage at the back behind the singers and action.

Yet the evening still had its moments due to a fine cast and the intensity of Williams’ drama with its visceral, unforgettable characters, which proved more compelling than anything happening in the busy vocal lines or noodling orchestra.

Give Renée Fleming credit for reviving this challenging role at this late stage of her career with its emotional extremes and bursts of dramatic high tessitura. While her luxuriant voice has thinned out in recent years, it’s less of an issue in Previn’s short-breathed, epigrammatic music.  The soprano gave it her all vocally, her edge on top notes actually sounding apt for Blanche’s mental desperation.

Fleming is one of our better opera actresses, and delivered a committed performance, yet dramatically her acting still felt too reined in, and didn’t deliver the emotional intensity and overwhelming sense of tragedy that Blanche’s devastation demands.

Susanna Phillips as Stella, gave a revelatory performance that was the finest thing she has done in Chicago in recent seasons. The Ryan Center alumna brought a rich, pure tone to her singing as Blanche’s sister, and dramatically etched the most rounded portrayal. The soprano conveyed the intense sexual chemistry with Stanley, as well as her conflicted position, caught between her unstable sister’s plight and her attraction to her rough, alpha-male husband. Phillips was at her finest in the final scene conveying Stella’s stricken pain and guilt at acquiescing in her sister’s ultimate destruction.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes made a stellar company debut as Stanley Kowalski. Though his shaved head and tribal tattoos suggested a Latin Kings gang member more than a 1940s factory worker, Rhodes brought a commanding stage presence and forceful booming baritone to the brutish Stanley. Previn gives the role little music to actually sing, but Rhodes inhabited the dramatic side completely and scarily, managing to dispel memories of Marlon Brando’s iconic Stanley, at least for the evening. Can we please hear Rhodes’ Billy Budd in Chicago soon?

As Mitch, Anthony Dean Griffey is the only holdover from the San Francisco Opera premiere besides Fleming. Griffey may have been a bit too young for the role of Blanche’s awkward suitor 15 years ago but now seems much more at home, singing with a robust tenor and conveying the lovable oaf who feels betrayed when Stanley tells him of Blanche’s scandalous past.

Andrew Bidlack made much out of the small role of the Young Collector, nicely conveying his discomfiture at Blanche’s attempted seduction. Victoria Livengood as Eunice, Dominic Armstrong as Steve, Mary Robin Roth as the Nurse and Joe Lauck as the Doctor rounded out the cast.

Any worries that this “semi-staged” production—also presented in London and, most recently, in New York—would amount to a chintzy concert performance with a chair and table were immediately dispelled. Fully costumed (excellently by Johann Stegmeir) and directed with great flair and imagination by Brad Dalton, the artful staging, though clearly minimalist with no sets, worked very well indeed, aided immensely by Duane Schuler’s atmospheric lighting. The only missteps were the heavy-handed phantoms of Belle Reve and Blanche’s dead husband and, especially, having the gang of hunky actor-stagehands doubling as louche Stanley Doppelgangers proved gratuitous to the action.

In addition to helming the Lyric’s current Rigoletto, conductor Evan Rogister showed great facility with Previn’s thin score, bringing out the jazz elements and drawing transparent textures, though the orchestra’s placement at the back of the stage prevented stronger sonic impact.

After the Opera’s Greatest Hits lineup slated for next season, perhaps the Lyric will finally present an American opera once again in a mainstage production in 2014-15—preferably one more deserving than Previn’s Streetcar.

A Streetcar Named Desire repeats March 29, April 3 and 6. All performances are sold out, but turnback tickets may be available. Also a Student Night performance of Streetcar with an alternate cast will be presented on April 5. 312-332-2244; lyricopera.org.

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One Response to “Lyric Opera’s inspired cast and artful staging can’t make the case for Previn’s pallid “Streetcar””

  1. Posted Mar 27, 2013 at 3:19 pm by Cynthia

    Yes, Rhodes in Billy Budd here. Soon. Please.