This is a minority opinion, but André Previn was not run over by Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I was convinced of that at San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Previn’s Streetcar last September, and the conviction seemed reinforced in the production simulcast December 30 on Channel 13 and WQXR-FM. Unlike Robert Ward’s The Crucible, which grabbed onto the coattails of Arthur Miller for dear life to little musical avail, or Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, which dutifully but uncreatively dogged the tracks of John Steinbeck, Previn’s very first opera, while not free of musical weakness here and there, rises to the many big moments of this almost mythic play.
For a largely bland composer like Previn to succeed for so much of his opera’s length in actually enhancing whole scenes from one of this country’s dramatic masterpieces was hardly a sure bet. Then again, his recent song cycle, Honey and Rue, based on Toni Morrison texts, was surely the work of someone who could enrich musically every piteous or defiant line.
Yes, there are lapses in Previn’s score. After a brief prelude that fixes the 1940s New Orleans atmosphere with pulsing brass chords (jazzily slid into), the opera is annoyingly slow to
gather musical steam. The recitative-cum-arioso between the sisters Blanche and Stella gets to be a taffy pull, and there are a few similarly trying stretches later on, whether as solos or duets.
Also the between-scene orchestral interludes are mostly empty and boring. The one that accompanies the blacked-out rape of Blanche by Stanley (Stella’s husband) is one of those fornication pieces that Richard Strauss did so much better in Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella.
But once the composer moves on to the formal arias and ensembles (abetted by librettist Philip Littell’s clever condensations of incident), we have a real opera going. Stella’s “I can hardly stand it/When he’s away” floats on an easily lyrical triple-time line, especially as sung by Elizabeth Futral, who later, after a night of lovemaking with Stan, sings a languorous melody potent enough to make you miss it the next time you see the play.
Stella, remember, is the second soprano lead. Top banana here is Renée Fleming, for whose uniquely glowing lyric-soprano voice the role of Blanche was composed. Of Blanche’s several monologues, the penultimate one, “I Want Magic,” where she defends fantasy (and lies) against reality, is getting independent play right now. It’s the title cut on Fleming’s CD, with James Levine and the Met Orchestra, devoted to American arias. (She also sings it on the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Previn that was telecast on CBS during the December 30 time PBS showed Streetcar.) “I Want Magic” gives you a strong, appropriate musical blend of pathos and anger, and Fleming does fine by it. Earlier on, she’s hair-raising in the unsparingly detailed description of how she inadvertently drove her gay husband to shooting his head apart. But for me, the pinnacle of the whole opera is Blanche’s last aria, a dream about dying gently on a ship at sea. The music glides as if from one psychotic (yet peaceful) thought to the next and lifts Fleming’s voice into that region of high pianissimo where every other contemporary soprano I know of fears (or should fear) to tread.
How about baritone Rodney Gilfrey as Stanley, and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch, Stan’s pal and Blanche’s eventually invalidated ticket to happiness? Gilfrey, muscle-bound and lithe, luckily makes no effort to remind you of Marlon Brando’s legendary performance. With his dry but incisive voice, he works up a hot head of steam on his own, making the insults kick brutally. Griffey’s lyrically sung remembrance of a dead girl Mitch loved, and his aria to Blanche about his dying mother also— like Blanche’s and Stella’s best solos— help make Streetcar an operatic success independent of the play.
Does the telecast do justice to Colin
Graham’s San Francisco staging? Often yes, but not always. All the leads are expressive and telegenic actors, and the close-ups, especially Fleming’s, do the right job. But the veteran (and once pioneering) TV director Kirk Browning seems to ignore the fact that stage movement scaled to a 3000-seat opera house can be a bit much on TV. Both women italicize movements and gestures a lot of the time, and we get neither reality nor magic. But on the credit side, the clouds of fog from which Blanche enters to begin the opera, and into which she exits to end it, are even more effective on TV than in the theater. In sum, you don’t need a ticket to ride this Streetcar, but even if you did, it would be worth the fare.