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Superb Cast Makes Streetcar Worth the Ride

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/19/1998 -  and 23, 26, 29 September, 2, 4, 8*, 11, October
André Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire
Renée Fleming, Susannah Glanville (2,4,8,11 October) (Blanche DuBois), Judith Forst (Eunice Hubbell), Elizabeth Futral, Peggy Kriha Dye (11 October) (Stella Kowalski), Rodney Gilfry, David Okerlund (11 October) (Stanley Kowalski), Matthew Lord (Steve Hubbell), Anthony Dean Giffrey, Jay Hunter Morris (2,4,11 October) (Harold Mitchell [Mitch]), Luis Oropeza (Pablo Gonzales), Jeffrey Lentz (A Young Collector), Josepha Gayer (A Mexican Woman), Ray Reinhardt (A Doctor), Lynne Soffer (A Nurse)
Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera, André Previn, Patrick Summers (2,4,8,11 October) (Conductor)
Colin Graham (Director)

The San Francisco Opera spared no resources in presenting its third opera of the season, the world premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire. Long a pet project of General Director, Lotfi Mansouri, he put together a production team and cast to give the opera its best possible chance of success. Whatever the chances are for the opera to enter the standard repertory, or even receive the occasional revival, the cast set a high standard by which to measure subsequent productions.

André Previn's score relies heavily on lush, jazz-oriented orchestration and effectively sets the mood for many of the opera's scenes. But it also tends toward a sameness that, combined with long stretches of recitative-like vocal writing, makes for a sense of lethargy that fights the drama's boiling passions. The scenes tend to start out well but loose a sense of momentum and structure, perhaps a sign of a first-time effort despite Previn's long experience with film scores and or forms of dramatic composition.

The first-class cast however, made the work seem like real drama, infusing it with passion and energy to bring the characters to life. All of them served the drama as well as the music with committed, dramatic performances that stood on their own.

One of the opera's goals, and one in which librettist Philip Littell succeeds strongly, is in keeping the focus of the work on Blanche DuBois, the neurotic Southern Belle with enough character flaws for several Italian operas. Renée Fleming is never less that mesmerizing in the role, singing with that lush, opulent tone that conveys a myriad of emotions whether riding over Previn's sometimes thick, heavy orchestration or spinning a silvery filigree of sound. Fleming made Blanche a sympathetic character without denying her dark, unappealing side. As the drama builds and Blanche's world begins to crumble both within and without, Fleming made the character's desperate attempts to maintain her carefully wrought illusions truly tragic rather than merely pathetic. For the role, Previn has written some attractive solos, particularly in the second and third acts. But he has also made it an enormously long role filled with a variety of challenges and Fleming handles it all with technical assurance and musical sensitivity.

As her adversary and nemesis, Stanley Kowalski, Rodney Gilfry cuts an imposing, powerful figure. Appropriately for the character, the vocal writing is blunt, matter-of-fact and aggressive. As such, it may not show off all of Gilfry vocal capabilities, but he seems made for the part and throws himself into it unstintingly. When Stanley erupts and strikes his wife, Gilfry makes it a truly terrifying moment. Even his anguished cry "Stella" is done with such forceful, raw emotion, that one forgets how easily such a moment can lapse into parody. With Gilfry, it never does. It’s the real thing.

Despite the dazzling presence of Gilfry and Fleming, Elizabeth Futral more than holds her own on stage in the role of Stella. She immediately establishes her character and her relationships with her sister and husband with the kind of clean, concise acting one rarely encounters, particularly in opera. In her debut with the company, Futral displayed an attractive lyric soprano that carries easily into the large house. Hopefully Futral will be a major part of upcoming seasons with the company.

Anthony Dean Giffrey's sweet, pure tenor embodies the kind of innocence that made his casting for the role of Mitch ideal. His equally unaffecting acting brought out Mitch's insecure, shy nature, and illuminated his heart-breaking disillusionment when he finds out about Blanche's sordid past. Giffrey also summoned plenty of vocal heft for Mitch's confrontation scene without sacrificing vocal purity or line.

Judith Forst made an appealingly frumpy appearance as the upstairs neighbor, Eunice Hubbell and Jeffrey Lentz contributed a fine performance as the young paperboy whom Blanche toys with as she comes unhinged.

For the second half of the run, Susannah Glanville, in her American debut, had the unenviable task of replacing Fleming in the role of Blanche. While her voice lacks some of the unique sound and richness of Fleming, Glanville compensated with some fascinating and subtle dramatic choice that individualized her performance. The attraction for Stanley was more evident as was her awareness of the danger of her situation. Glanville also made a seamless combining of musical and dramatic elements in the vocal writing, the one informing and illuminating the other.

Director Colin Graham deserves a good deal of the credit for bringing out consistently strong dramatic performances from the entire cast and staging Streetcar with clarity and focus. Michael Yeargan's production, with it's two rotating set pieces that fit together for the interior of the Kowalski apartment and turn out for the few exterior scenes, was rich in atmosphere and detail. The opening scene, the mist wrapping around the long curved stairway and slightly skewed angles of the buildings, did at least as much to establish the world of Streetcar as Previn's labored score did. Thomas J. Munn's lighting enhanced the work, but occasionally drew attention to itself latter on in the drama.

The production was taped for release on CD and telecast over the PBS network later this year.

Kelly Snyder



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