A Whiff of New Orleans in Semi-Staged “Streetcar”

United StatesUnited States André Previn, A Streetcar Named Desire: Soloists, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Patrick Summers (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City. 14.3.2013 (BH)

Renée Fleming, Soprano (Blanche DuBois)
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Baritone (Stanley Kowalski)
Susanna Phillips, Soprano (Stella Kowalski)
Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor (Harold Mitchell, “Mitch”)
Victoria Livengood, Mezzo-Soprano (Eunice Hubbell)
Dominic Armstrong, Tenor (Steve Hubbell)
Andrew Bidlack, Tenor (A Young Collector)
Georga Osborne (Nurse)
Bill Nabel (Doctor)

Brad Dalton, Director
Alan Adelman, Lighting Designer
Johann Stegmeir, Costume Designer

It’s hard to believe that A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’s iconic play, wasn’t turned into an opera until 1998—over fifty years after the play’s appearance in 1947. Enter André Previn, who did the deed after choosing Renée Fleming as his muse (for the role of Blanche). The results, for the most part, were moving—at least as shown in this semi-staged production at Carnegie Hall, though as time goes by the appeal of Previn’s score seems dimmed.

The four principals—on paper, at least—were as invitingly cast as one could imagine. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey was Mitch in the original production, and used his lustrous voice to great effect, sometimes adding a tremulous quality as if being in the presence of Blanche were a tad overwhelming, and late in the show, scoffing at her when he realizes her true nature. As Stella, Susanna Phillips had perhaps the best night of the group, her voice gleaming with color as she flirted with husband Stanley (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), or falling in dismay as she realizes her sister is not exactly as she appears. Rhodes—often shirtless and with impressive tattoos—sported vigorous tone-as-well-as-testosterone, and made a quietly ruthless Stanley Kowalski. I wish his enunciation had been clearer, but the surtitles almost made such matters moot.

Ms. Fleming, closely involved with Carnegie Hall this spring via its Perspectives series, has sung this role many times since its premiere. If her vocal power is slowly lessening—and she suffered from similar diction issues—she compensated with her tone, musical instincts and acting prowess. “I Want Magic!” and “I Can Smell the Sea Air” (both followed by prolonged applause) reminded me of Fleming at her peak, and nowhere was her theatricality more evident than in the final act, when she climbed onto a chair and stood there, hesitant in a cloud of delirium, like a trapped mouse looking for a way out.

Other roles were pleasantly handled by Victoria Livengood (as Eunice) and Dominic Armstrong (as Steve, her husband), and nods to Andrew Bidlack, as well as Georga Osborne and Bill Nabel as the doctor/nurse team who eventually come for Blanche. And as “men of New Orleans,” Brad Heikes, Brendan Irving, Kevin Reed, Patrick Stoffer, Brett Zubler did yeoman’s work, doubling as set-change crew—all ably directed by Brad Dalton.

Previn’s score has been compared to Britten, with his use of small melodic fragments rather than longer lines, but the former is no match for the latter in orchestral imagination. (And is it just me, or does the scene in which Stanley attacks Blanche resemble Shostakovich’s rape scene in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk?) Patrick Summers conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with aplomb, though balances sometimes seemed off, and occasionally I felt some of the cast were struggling to maintain equilibrium, over-singing in order to be heard above the ensemble. But some of the beguiling instrumental solos were atmospherically done, such as the saxophone that floats through the score, alluding to the very real musical fragments that drift through New Orleans streets, and the final, haunting trumpet solo that ends the opera.

Bruce Hodges