KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 28, 2000
The opera world is awash in the same debate as the musical theater community. The emotionally charged question is: Whatever happened to melody in musical art forms? The 1998 opera debut of composer André Previn begs the question. Previn was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera to tackle the daunting task of turning Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 classic, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” into a contemporary opera. The San Diego Opera production is only the third time the piece has been performed.
It’s mounted beautifully and lovingly at the Civic Theatre. The production is magnificent. But this “Streetcar” leaves something to be desired. The mood of 1940’s New Orleans is richly evoked. The scene is set with the plaintive wail of a trolley whistle, nestled in a blues and jazz idiom. The revolving set is redolent of the French Quarter, with a long, winding staircase and wrought iron balconies. The lighting is moody and suggestive.
Previn’s orchestrations, deftly conducted by Karen Keltner, are lush and brash, but they have the brassy Hollywood sound of a movie soundtrack rather than an opera score. Film work may be where Previn’s genius lies. His vocal music for “Streetcar” is dissonant and uninspired. There are few arias, fewer duets. Most is just inflected dialogue. But the outstanding cast wrings every bit of melody and emotion from the piece. Both the singing and the acting are dazzling, thanks to Brad Dalton’s robust direction.
The richly resonant baritone David Okerlund is a sexy, swaggering Stanley Kowalski, whose brutish manner conflicts with the ethereal delicacy of his visiting sister-in-law, the emotionally unstable Blanche DuBois. Silver-voiced soprano Sheryl Woods makes Blanche a steely survivor, less fragile than some, more seductive than most. Re-creating the role of Mitch, Anthony Dean Griffey is gripping as Stanley’s sensitive card-playing buddy who becomes Blanche’s suitor and last hope for salvation. Also reprising the role she created, Elizabeth Futral makes a magnificent Stella, a sensuous soprano so sexually ignited, so helplessly torn between her husband and her sister, that she breaks your heart. Musically, her wordless, post-coital, morning-after melody is one of the most beautiful, passionate moments of the evening. The real sexual high-point of the plot, however, Stanley’s rape of Blanche, is musically and emotionally disappointing.
The opera is as melodramatic as the original play, as florid and highly charged. Philip Littell’s libretto effectively distills the story down to its essence, the clash between spirituality and carnality, the aesthete and the brute. While I loved the bluesy, jazzy orchestral score, I felt oppressed by 3 1/2 hours of relentless recitative, Previn’s restless, agitating version of declamatory singing. It made me long for the lyricism of Williams’ words. I wanted to hear the lush language unsung, in all its original, glorious power and poetry, perhaps backed by Previn’s muscular, angular score. In the opera world, people like to say that better operas are made from good plays than from great plays. This literary masterwork is innately, inherently musical. It isn’t enhanced by atonal tinkering.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.