Previn's Streetcar Takes Carnegie Stage

Patrick Summers
Associated Press

By Ronald Blum

NEW YORK (AP) — Andre Previn's opera version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" finally made it to New York — 15 years after its world premiere.

It is interesting. It has moments. But it is far from compelling.

Previn's adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, with a libretto by Philip Littell, returned for Thursday night's semistaged concert performance at Carnegie Hall with Renee Fleming, who sang Blanche Dubois at the San Francisco Opera's world premiere production.

This "Streetcar" meanders along for much of the first two acts, more words with background music than music that drives the drama. Only in the final half-hour of the third act does the opera really take off.

Previn's score for his first opera is most successful during its jazzier moments, when horns and the clarinet take prominence and give the boozy, detached feel of Blanche. The music conveys her struggle to both integrate and differentiate her alternate reality from the world around her in the New Orleans home of her sister and brother-in-law. There are echoes of Britten and a short segment meant to remind the audience of the presentation of the rose in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."

The arias seem to be plopped in rather than flowing extensions of the drama. Stella's first-act "I can hardly stand it" is the most natural, an explanation of what attracts her to her husband. Mitch's "I'm not a boy" in the second act and Blanche's "I want magic!" and "I can smell the sea air" in the third are fine musical showpieces but come off as Shakespearean soliloquies that are inert segments failing to flow from what precedes and stream into what follows.

Blanche is a natural for the 54-year-old Fleming, soaring vocal lines fitting her lyric soprano. Coming back to the role years later, Fleming inhabits the role with a deeper understanding of Blanche than she did in the original run.

Anthony Dean Griffey also returned, displaying a sweet tenor and Mitch's awkwardness and yearning.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes was a menacing Stanley Kowalski, his bald head and tattoo on his left arm in stark contrast to Fleming in Johann Stegmeir's glamorous dresses. Bare-chested or in a tank top for much of the evening, Rhodes walked with a hulking bluntness, and his baritone seethed with contempt.

Soprano Susanna Phillips sang Stella Kowalski, struggling and savoring her surroundings. Mezzo Victoria Livengood (Eunice Hubbell), tenor Dominic Armstrong (Steve Hubbell) and tenor Andrew Bidlack (A Young Collector) were part of an appealing supporting cast.

Patrick Summers conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke's with verve and feeling for the bluesy action and the chilling moments. The orchestra was at the back of the stage, with the action toward the front. A bed, chairs and tables, and Blanche's trunk were the primary props, and Brad Dalton directed almost as if this had been a fully staged performance. Alan Adelman designed the striking, moody lighting.

Watching from a first-tier box, the 83-year-old composer was given a big ovation during the curtain calls. Despite the work's flaws, it is entertaining.

There are four performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from March 26 to April 6, with the same primary singers and Evan Rogister conducting.