WASHINGTON, March 8, 2013 – Our first opportunity to see André Previn’s still newish 1998 opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, was during its East Coast premiere by the Washington National Opera (WNO) in 2004 at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. In our review of this work, based on Tennessee Williams’ famous play, we wrote that “the company’s gallant singers strive mightily to overcome a weak book and a blustery score. But their Sisyphean labors are thwarted by boldly unimaginative directing and a cheap, dingy, deja-vu set that gives abstract expressionism a bad name.”
Now, nearly ten years later, the Virginia Opera has decided to tackle this difficult work. And my, oh my, how things have changed. Phillip Littell’s book strikes us as still being awfully prosaic. And we still wish Mr. Previn had provided us with a bit more in the jazzy tune department as opposed to some of the atonal, verismo dreariness of his score, primarily in the early innings. That said, however, this much smaller but perhaps more spirited opera company has somehow uncovered the vein of gold that was cleverly hidden in Mr. Previn’s opera–to the point where we may be forced to revise our opinion about where this opera stands in the musical firmament.
Everything in this Virginia Opera production—which finishes its run this week in Richmond after its visit to Fairfax City this weekend past—is well thought out and well executed, ranging from the production’s severely abstract set, to the quality of the singing and, perhaps even more importantly, the uncanny expertise in the acting as well.
Making things even better, the singers were accompanied by members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, whose members, under the insightful direction of Maestro Ari Pelto, added just the right slippery, jazzy underbelly to Mr. Previn’s music that WNO seems to have forgotten in 2004. This has the effect of perking up Mr. Previn’s score and infusing it with the kind of decadent but pulsating life that we’re now convinced the composer had actually been thinking of all along.
Add to all the above the insightful direction of Sam Helfrich, who helped bring Virginia audiences an eye-opening production of Philip Glass’ Orphée last season, and, as sports announcers often proclaim on the radio, “we have a whole new ballgame here, folks.”
The Virginia Opera’s cast comes alive in this production, albeit in an almost ritualistic manner. They embody the steamy sleaziness and social hopelessness of 1940s New Orleans, the played out, faded temptress of a town on the downslope where both the play and the opera are set. As if influenced by the climate, Williams’ characters—and the opera’s soloists—tend to radiate the negative, hopeless, deterministic, and usually bad choices and outcomes typical for those living on the margins of humanity as they hope for the kind of break that they figure will never really come. Never able to prosper, they at least try to survive, but do even that rather badly.
As the badly aging, pathetic, yet tragic Blanche DuBois, soprano Kelly Cae Hogan turns in a magnificent performance both vocally and as an actress. Blanche is a hard part to play, both in the stage version and in this opera. Normally, an opera’s star soprano is glamorous and sympathetic. Not here.
Blanche is worn out, a phony, and a fraud, still imagining herself as the fragile, desirable Southern Belle she long ago ceased to be. Imperious, giving off airs, but as phony as a three-dollar bill, she’s left with less dignity than a woman of the streets, but refuses all responsibility for her fall.
In short, Blanche is a vital but incredibly ungracious role. But Ms. Hogan dives right into it, taking on all the abhorrent aspects of a flawed character who, in the end, veers wildly between the tragic and the pathetic, leaving the final decisions up to us.
Happily, through all the misery, Blanche, and thus Ms. Hogan, gets the choicest musical moments in Mr. Previn’s gloomily atmospheric score. Her world weary voice will suddenly erupt into genuine lyricism, particularly effective in this opera’s one true aria, “I can smell the sea air,” where she envisions a tranquil seaside where all is lovely and well.
Blanche’s is a huge and taxing vocal role in this opera, but Ms. Hogan never flags. No doubt, that’s due to her stamina and professionalism. But her performance is also helped considerably by a supporting cast that’s also into the essence of this opera’s bleak and sorrowful core and marvelously capable of supporting the production both vocally and, as actors, by their excellent grasp of character.
As Blanche’s key antagonist, Stanley Kowalski, a trim, fit, and eternally menacing David Adam Moore excels, lending both his springly and combative physical presence and his domineering—and occasionally snarling—baritone voice a weird kind of gravitas that suits this strange but powerful role. You get nervous whenever he enters the room. For reasons known only to him, he’ll always cut to the chase no matter how many broken lives or spirits he might leave behind.
For perhaps the wrong reasons, Mr. Moore’s studiously common Stanley has an eye for truth and a nose for fraud. His down-and-out sister-in-law’s cheap condescension is not Stanley’s bag; and, in their climactic scene together, he finishes off Blanche’s pretensions for once and for all.
Stanley is at once a brutal villain and, ironically, an acute social detective. He actually symbolizes the awful truth, resplendant in all its thuggishness. Somehow, Mr. Moore as able to get his arms around this whole complex scenario, turning in an interpretation of Kowalski that will be hard to top in future productions of this opera.
As Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife, Stella, soprano Julia Ebner serves as a foil to her rapidly declining older sister. Her lighter, markedly more youthful voice still embodies a certain optimistic quality in contrast to Ms. Hogan’s Blanche, particularly in her lilting and surprising vocalise that end the opera’s first act. In a way, her character and characterization are the antidotes to the sorrow and hopelessness that affects most of this opera. Unfortunately, no one is much interested in the alternative path she seems to offer.
In a way, tenor Scott Ramsey, as Blanche’s would-be boyfriend Mitch, serves as the same kind of foil for Stanley as Ms. Ebner’s Stella is for Blanche. A decent guy without pretension, Mitch knows his limitations, and, perhaps for safety’s sake, plays the loyal pack animal to Stanley’s alpha male. Yet his basic decency always shines through. Sensing, perhaps naively, that Blanche may be a damsel in distress and in need of his protection and love, he tries to provide it—until the relentless Stanley provides the rest of Blanche’s sordid story.
Mr. Ramsey’s light, sincere tenor is once again well suited to his role as a uniter and a peacemaker, even though his mission is ultimately foiled. But again, his role in the esemble is key. Each of the singer-actors in this production stake out and control distinctive turf, uniting to create a performance whose effect is to exceed audience expectations.
Is Streetcar Named Desire comparable to Puccini? No. But it’s not meant to be. As a musical realization of a classic American tragic drama, it embodies not the Romantic era but the 20th century in all its brutality. For better or worse, it reflects our troubled times and sees mostly bleakness. It’s simply a different, perhaps less uplifting kind of operatic tragedy.
Mr. Previn’s opera has clearly grown on us over the past decade—due in large part to the Virginia Opera’s much more astute and finely nuanced production. When it comes to American opera, there’s a tendency on the part of opera lovers to stay at home or give their tickets to someone else. That would be a mistake this time around.
Those who do choose to take a chance on this modern American opera in Richmond this weekend likely won’t go home singing a batch of memorable tunes. But they will experience an operatic take on a great American tragedy whose iconic characters embody both the aspirations and the failures of normal, everyday people. This is a musical evening that’s difficult at times. But perhaps more importantly, it’s also a very theatrical musical evening. And there’s a lot to be said for giving something new and different a try.
Rating: *** (Three stars out of four.)
The Virginia Opera’s current production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire closes this weekend with two performances at the Carpenter Theatre in Richmond, Virginia. Dates and times: Friday, March 8, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 10, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices range between $23.50 and $119 depending on availability.
For tickets and information on these final performances, visit the Virginia Opera website via this link.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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