Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlie Takes a Streetcar Named Desire

The summer-long Merola Opera training program for young professionals started its public performances last Thursday with a reduced orchestration version (in a nice job by Peter Grunberg) of Andre Previn and Philip Littell's 1998 opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the famous Tennessee Williams play. I was having problems with a persistent cough, so ducked out after the first act, but was impressed with the production while reacting to the opera in the same way as during its starry Renee Fleming debut. The music and the libretto don't add a single thing to the beautifully written original play, and in fact tend to obliterate the natural musicality of Williams' writing genius.

My concert companion Charlie Lichtman sat through the entire three acts on Thursday and wrote me this report:

When I saw the original opera ’Streetcar’ in the Opera House, I didn’t particularly care for the piece, but on seeing the broadcast of the same production on PBS TV, I liked it better. It didn’t work for me in the Opera House because the story is so intimate, to be viewed close-up rather than at a distance, and I hoped that a smaller venue would help. The junior high school Everett Auditorium is a much cozier room than the the Opera House, and I was hoping for the best, but overall the evening was a disappointment. The individual elements of the performance were mostly quite good, but the sum of the parts did not add up to a particularly memorable whole.

Steven Kemp’s static set of the Kowalski apartment was visually interesting, and integrated intelligently with the action of the story. Eric Watkins’ lighting was, for the most part, well conceived, except for the Act Three ‘what time is it?’ sequence, when the lights were brought down and back up again too often to represent the passage of time, and became annoying. Kristi Johnson’s costumes were true to the period, location, and characters.

The singers were all in fine voice. There were a couple of stand-out moments, including the extended arias of Julie Adams (Blanche Dubois) and Casey Candebat (Mitch) in the second and third acts, which were much appreciated by the audience. The second act scene with the young newspaper collector (Mingjie Lei) and Blanche almost worked. Upon realizing that he was being seduced, the collector had a look on his face as if he was surprised about nearly getting lucky, instead of appearing genuinely embarrassed. That relatively small directorial touch ruined the otherwise well-performed scene.

Thomas Gunther presented a convincing Stanley Kowalski. Although admittedly not as physically flawless as his iconic predecessors (Marlon Brando and Rod Gilfrey, among others), he certainly looked working-class enough for me. His actions in the later scenes of the opera, especially when drunk, convincingly exposed the more brutish side of his character. Unfortunately, and this has nothing to do with Mr. Gunther, both the love scene with Stella and the rape of Blanche were accomplished in less than thirty seconds each, which rendered both scenes silly.

After seeing the debut of the opera, I realized that none of the music stayed with me. Seeing it again Thursday evening, Stella’s post-coitus humming music was the only moment that was immediately recognizable, where the orchestration got down to a more primal level, and it made me realize why I didn’t like the opera overall – it was the music. Previn was attempting to approach some kind of New Orleans jazz sound, but it seemed more jazz for the upper class, not working class. George Gershwin “got it” with Porgy and Bess, even Leonard Bernstein “got it” with West Side Story. Previn composed a whole lot of music for Streetcar, but it wasn’t the right fit.


Janos Gereben said...

Charlie, you're too kind and also your memory seems to be failing.

"None of the music"?! How could you have missed or forgotten the Presentation or the Rose or other borrowed music from Strauss?

sfphoneguy said...

Janos: Yes, I did pick up on the Strauss references. Perhaps I should have written "None of the ORIGINAL music stayed with me" instead...