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A bit of magic would be nice

06/25/2003 -  and 27 June 2003
André Previn: A streetcar named desire

Renée Fleming (Blanche Dubois), Janice Watson (Stella Kowalski), Rodney Gilfry (Stanley Kowalski), Anthony Dean Griffey (Mitch), Elizabeth Sikora (Eunice Hubbell), Neil Jenkins (Steve Hubbell), Jeffrey Lentz (A young collector)

André Previn (conductor), Brad Dalton (directory)

London Symphony Orchestra

André Previn's 1998 opera A streetcar named desire, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, was among a millennial clutch of new operas that have already been widely judged as failures. This performance, with most of the original cast, presented a chance to re-evaluate it in the light of, for example, Randolph Peter's Golden Ass and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby. Even in the light of such problematic works, unfortunately, it still looked pretty disastrous. A profoundly insightful drama about acting out and personal dissolution induced by sexual oppression becomes a scented melodrama, in the strict sense, where the music is totally subservient to the text. Yet the vocal lines smooth out the text completely, leaving no space for the singers to express its intense emotion and danger.

Any impact Streetcar has comes from its theatrical presentation -- the production and extramusical performances. In a way, Streetcar belongs alongside the weakest works of Massenet and the most nugatory of Richard Strauss, or perhaps even more post-second-world-war Americana like The ballad of Baby Doe and Susannah. This was presumably the mainstream of new "classical" music when the young Previn was working as a film arranger and composer at the start of a truly prodigious career. And it not his fault, or that of the librettist Philip Littell, that the estate of Tennessee Williams obliged them to use as much of the text as possible, and not to adapt it, effectively ruling out any tailoring of the drama to musical form. Instead, drama is pointed by movie-like mannerisms such as minatory sforzandi, instrumental echoes of verbal rhythms and snatches of genre music wafting by. It is a bit depressing that an opera intended as a climax to the last century turns out to be impeccably crafted and desperately old fashioned.

It was probably wise of the Barbican to present a semi-staged version rather than a full concert performance. Brad Dalton presented an economical reduction of his production for San Diego. There was a table, some chairs and Blanche's trunk. Too-darn-hot supers doubled as scene (or rather furniture) shifters. A handsome young man in a white suit (Jeffrey Lentz) haunted the stage, perhaps a proxy for the author, miraculously becoming the spotty young subscription salesman who Blanch hits on in desperation before rather less miraculously manifesting himself as the ghost of her first husband, who committed suicide when she discovered he was gay. But, in spite of some powerful performances, there was an atmosphere of dressing up and putting on a play about it when the role-playing should have been in the nerves of the drama. (Incidentally, John Woolrich's opera based on Genet's The Maids, which also appeared in 1998 and has sunk without trace, achieved the integration of music and self-dramatisation in a twentieth-century mode that Streetcar misses by a mile.)

Renée Fleming as Blanche was, alas, a palpable absence at the heart of things. Bourbon never abraded her throat. You didn't need to remember Vivien Leigh -- who really was emotionally fragile -- or Jessica Tandy -- who was long and happily married and probably not -- to grasp that Blanche presents the surface of a shattered mirror, sometimes pretty but always unreliable. Fleming was more a Stepford Wife programmed to flirt. She made enough verbal fluffs, exposed by the surtitles, to reduce parts of the text to gibberish, and her occasional haywire pitches seemed to serve the interests of vocal smoothness rather than expression. Her eventual madness wasn't foreshadowed, or even really identifiable as she was led away by the doctor and nurse.

Rodney Gilfrey presented a personal style, butch and furious, much closer to the type required for Stanley than Fleming did for Blanche, although he was a bit monotone. He has been truly unlucky in creating not only this role but also that of Nathan in Sophie's Choice, both of which have star performances preserved on film. Gilfrey has a powerful presence, but he is always wholesome.

Janice Watson as Stella was a plausible sister for Fleming, and her performance had some of the edge and dramatic immediacy that Fleming's lacked, even though Watson has never appeared in a staged production of Streetcar. She sang the musical highlight of the opera strikingly, Stella's post-coital vocalise at the end of act one, which also suggested what might have been if the opera hadn't been nailed to the words at every turn. Anthony Dean Griffey was moving and slightly disturbing as Mitch, starting out with Oliver-Hardy bumptiousness and ending in confused rage and frustration. Somehow, the beauty of his voice made his roughness all the more poignant rather than deracinating it.

André Previn conducted his old band, the LSO, in a controlled and lucid performance

HE Elsom



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