Memorable Cast for Previn’s “Streetcar”

United StatesUnited States André Previn, A Streetcar Named Desire: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Evan Rogister (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 26.3.2013 (JLZ)

Blanche Dubois: Renée Fleming
Stella Kowalski: Susanna Phillips
Stanley Kowalski: Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Harold “Mitch” Mitchell: Anthony Dean Griffey
Eunice Hubbell: Victoria Livengood
Steve Hubbell: Dominic Armstrong
Young Collector: Andrew Bidlack
Nurse: Mary Robin Roth
Doctor: Joe Lauck

Director: Brad Dalton
Costume Designer: Johann Stegmeir
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler

Act-1-Street Car Named Desire. Photo:Todd-Rosenberg

Kudos to Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is giving André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire a four-performance run rather than a single, isolated presentation. Streetcar is a significant recent opera, and its inclusion contributes much to the tradition of programming new works in this house. At the same time, part of the attraction is the involvement of Renée Fleming, Lyric’s Creative Consultant, who sang the role of Blanche Dubois that Previn created for her.

While the production has been described in the press as semi-staged, the only elements absent were actual backdrops, whether painted or constructed. There were sufficient props, including tables, chairs, a bed, and other items—to create images of the Kowalski flat and the drama in one’s mind. And since it was placed at the rear of the stage, the orchestra itself became part of the setting. The result gave the audience the opportunity to hear Previn’s detailed score, and the layout appeared to give conductor Evan Rogister greater ability to interact with both the musicians and the principals. In only a few passages did the volume of the orchestra raise any questions.

The audience will easily recognize the substance of Tennessee Williams’ play in Philip Littell’s libretto. In distilling the play’s eleven scenes of the play into Previn’s three acts, Littell focused on Blanche. While the pleasantries at the opening of the first scene are set with rather plain, indistinct declamation, the music grows organically, reflecting the characters’ increasingly complex moods. Previn’s musical idiom unfolds logically, enhancing the text without supplanting it; consider Stella’s idealistic reflections in the first act, which are corroborated differently from the antagonism between Blanche and Stanley. As Stella, Susanna Phillips showed wonderful sensitivity to the texts, in a role that suits her voice very well.

As Stanley, Teddy Tahu Rhodes gave an extroverted, full-voiced characterization, balancing the visceral qualities with the street-smart awareness that allowed him to assess the consequences of Blanche’s actions. In the first act’s second scene, after the drunken Stanley strikes Stella in front of his friends and she flees, he utters his famous cry—a line that Previn wisely has left spoken, not sung. Rhodes delivers it with the power of a fine orator while keeping its rhythm and dynamic level within the scene’s musical structure.

Also in the second act, Fleming gave a deft reading of the scene in which Stanley’s inquiries about her past cause her noticeable discomfort, and the attempted seduction of the “Young Collector,” the paper boy, is touching; Fleming moved effortlessly between the declamation and the arioso-like passages of reflection. As Mitch, Anthony Dean Griffey reprises the role he created, and his refined tenor defined Mitch vocally. In the scene culminating in Blanche’s confession to Mitch about her late husband’s suicide, her touching narrative is enhanced by the stage presence of Andrew Bidlack as the young collector, and Fleming’s delivery was mesmerizing. Her interpretation blended seamlessly into the exquisitely phrased musical line, with the orchestra offering keen stylistic support. At the end-of-act blackout, the silence of the audience told the story.

In the third act, innovative staging was the hallmark of the four scenes. Powerfully but without histrionics, Mr. Rhodes delivered Stanley’s allegations about Blanche, and the scene with Mitch was equally strong, with his declarations about Blanche hitting with the intensity of a physical blow. The drama culminates in the third scene, when Stanley rapes Blanche—a tragic act staged discreetly, with the intensity of the music taking precedence over any explicit re-enactment. The dramatic tension continued into the final scene, in which the broken Blanche is turned over to the doctor and nurse, who take her to an asylum, as Fleming delivered the famous line about “the kindness of strangers.”

Acknowledging the music, the impeccable performances and the opera’s first appearance in Chicago, the audience responded enthusiastically. Previn has created a fine work that pays respect to its source, and has contributed—with the same integrity of Verdi and Britten—a memorable score.

James L. Zychowicz