Renee Fleming makes the case for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ opera
BY KYLE MACMILLAN March 22, 2013 6:08PM
Blanche (Renee Fleming) works her wiles on Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey), in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (shown here at Carnegie Hall), which opens Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at the Civic Opera House in Chicago.
‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and April 3; 2 p.m. April 6
Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, Chicago
Tickets: Sold out
Info: (312) 332-2244; lyricopera.org Tickets are $20 for an alternate-cast performance for high school and college students at 7:30 p.m. April 5
Updated: April 25, 2013 6:52AM
‘I want magic!” declares Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine, in the operatic adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Andre Previn’s work certainly has enchanted opera companies worldwide. Since its premiere in 1998 at San Francisco Opera, “Streetcar” has been remounted more than two dozen times — an impressive number in a field where new works are often heard once and forgotten.
Through it all, the opera has had no more steadfast champion than world-renowned soprano Renee Fleming, for whom the central role of Blanche was composed. She unequivocally calls it the best opera of the last 15 years.
“It is so well-crafted,” Fleming said. “The storytelling is great. The characters are well drawn. But it’s mostly the music. It’s Andre’s knowledge of how to orchestrate the thematic material and thread it back into the storytelling all the way through.”
It is through her efforts as creative consultant to Lyric Opera of Chicago that the company is presenting its first production of “Streetcar,” with four sold-out performances running Tuesday to April 6. (An alternate cast will present a performance for high-school and college students on April 5.)
Fleming first had the idea of bringing the work to Carnegie Hall as part of the 2012-13 “Perspectives” series that she curated, and it made sense, given the resources necessary for such an undertaking, to mount it as well at Lyric Opera. “As the person for whom the role [of Blanche] was written,” Fleming said, “to have an opportunity to say, ‘Let’s look at this piece again,’ is exciting, and it’s a privilege.”
But the work has taken its share of hits from critics. After its premiere, critic Joshua Kosman wrote that Previn’s “bland, mildly dissonant vocal lines” were no match for Williams’ intense drama.
Previn, 83, whose diverse career as a pianist, composer and conductor has taken him into the realms of jazz, classical music and movie scores, wrote a couple of small-scale operatic works in 1976. But he had never tackled a full-length opera until this project. “Someone asked me to. It was that simple,” Previn said.
Lotfi Mansouri, then general director of the San Francisco Opera, first proposed the idea of an opera based on a Greek-Roman theme. But when Previn balked, Mansouri suggested an adaptation of Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, set in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
“I said, ‘Hang up slowly, because my signed copy [of the contract] will be there before you do.’ That’s a great, great play, and I jumped on it,” said Previn, who wrote a second full-scale opera in 2007 and is working on a third.
Collaborating with librettist Philip Littell, the composer tried to not be distracted by the movie version of “Streetcar” (1951) with Marlon Brando’s landmark portrayal of Stanley Kowalski. Instead, Previn stuck as closely as possible to the original text, keeping the central focus on Blanche, a faded Southern belle.
The only significant alteration Previn made to his jazz-tinged score after it was finished was adding a second intermission between the second and third acts at the request of Fleming. Without the added break, she found the demanding opera too draining for the lead soprano.
Lyric’s production is billed as semi-staged, but director Brad Dalton said it is fully acted with costumes and props. The only difference between this approach and a standard production is that the orchestra is onstage, and there is no formal set.
The settings will be suggested by chairs, which are shifted into varying positions by a group of seven non-speaking actors, who serve as kind of living representations of New Orleans.
Dalton worked as an assistant director on the San Francisco premiere, but he did not like the way the action in that production was divided between two realistically depicted rooms. “There was nothing you could do theatrically with that,” he said. “In my version, it’s a much more Blanche-centric, emotional experience that matches the colors and orchestration of the music.
“You’ll see it. There are some hallucinatory things that happen, and as the piece goes along, the realism of the inside apartment begins to break apart to represent her breaking apart. So it’s a little more theatrical, but it has the most simple means of telling the story that you could ever have.”
Another significant change from earlier productions is that Dalton — with Previn’s permission — has shortened the opera by about 20 minutes, a move that he believes quickens the pace. It now runs about 2½ hours (3¼ hours with the intermissions).
Fleming has not sung the role of Blanche since she took part in a 2003 concert version in London, and she was worried about returning to the role after such a long absence. But she has enjoyed the experience.
“The vocal writing is perfect,” she said. “How many things do you get to do that were written for you? In opera, there are almost no living composers we ever get to perform, so it’s a special treat to come back to this.”
Kyle MacMillan is a locally based freelance writer.