Reviewed by Judy Richter
San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri set himself a daunting task when he decided to commission an opera based on Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Immortalized in both stage and film productions, this 1947 drama is so great in its own right that any composer and librettist might find it difficult to enhance it, let alone surpass it. Nevertheless, composer-conductor André Previn and librettist Philip Littell accepted the challenge. Previn has numerous film scores and other works to his credit, but this is his first opera. Littell is best known to SFO audiences as the librettist for The Dangerous Liaisons, which the company commissioned for its world premiere in 1994.
The result of their efforts had its world premiere Sept. 19. The reviewed performance was the second, Sept. 23. This production has a first-rate cast of English-speaking singers led by a quartet of Americans: soprano Renée Fleming as Blanche, baritone Rodney Gilfry as Stanley, soprano Elizabeth Futral as Stella and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch. Supporting roles are ably filled by Canadian mezzo-soprano Judith Forst as Eunice, American tenor Matthew Lord as Steve, American tenor Jeffrey Lentz as the newspaper collector and American mezzo-soprano Josepha Gayer as a Mexican woman. Three Bay Area actors complete the cast in non-singing roles: Luis Oropeza as Pablo, Ray Reinhardt as a doctor and Lynne Soffer as a nurse.
Although the introduction has a foreboding air that sets the stage for the tragedy to come and although the three-act work has some memorable moments, the overall effect is underwhelming. Much of the dialogue lacks musical color. The words are there, but some scenes seem devoid of musical emotion, especially in Act 1. On the other hand, Scene 2 of Act 1 opens with a jazzy motif as Stella primps for her evening out, and Act 1 ends with a beautiful duet for the two sisters: As Blanche talks about what an animal Stanley is, Stella seems to ignore her and sings her own la-la melody of sensual satisfaction.
The Act 2 overture begins with a rhythmic pulse followed by some languorous passages. This act is highlighted by Mitch's gorgeous aria that speaks of love, followed by Blanche's dramatic aria about her late husband and a duet of hope for the two people who see each other as perhaps their last hope for happiness. Act 3, with its four scenes, moves briskly enough, but one of the creators' expansions of Williams' text -- a prolonged scene for the Mexican woman selling flowers for the dead -- is too heavy-handed even though it is intended as a fantasy reflecting Blanche's deteriorating mental condition.
Although any mention of Streetcar invariably evokes images of Marlon Brando's film portrayal of Stanley, Blanche is definitely the focus of this operatic Streetcar, and Stanley's role seems diminished. Hence, some of the dramatically crucial conflict between them also is diminished. Gilfry looks terrific and sings well as Stanley, but the creators don't showcase the character's primal power. Fleming sings beautifully in the demanding role of Blanche, but the character's fragility, lost gentility and delusions aren't always easy to discern.
The characters of Stella and Mitch fare better. Futral has a pure tone and embodies a woman torn between love for her husband and love for her sister. With his bright, controlled tenor voice and sincere demeanor, Griffey makes Mitch totally sympathetic. In paring Williams' text, Littell has reduced the roles of the Kowalskis' upstairs neighbors, Eunice and Steve, but Forst and Lord do well with these small parts.
The composer conducts the excellent SFO Orchestra for the first four performances. Patrick Summers, who has had a long association with SFO, will conduct the final four. Susannah Glanville will portray Blanche for the final four, and Jay Hunter Morris will portray Mitch on Oct. 2, 4 and 11. Peggy Kriha Dye as Stella and David Okerlund as Stanley will sing Oct. 11.
Colin Graham has staged the production with clarity, but a few scenes take place on the far sides of the stage, which have poor sight lines for people seated on the far sides of the orchestra section. Michael Yergin's revolving set and character-appropriate costumes serve the production well, as do Thomas J. Munn's lighting and projections.
Although this Streetcar has been met with mixed reviews, it holds considerable promise with some judicious revision. In the meantime, it is being videotaped for a future telecast.
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