Arts & Events

Merola Opera Presents André Previn’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday July 11, 2014 - 01:49:00 PM

Composer André Previn’s opera A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the play by Tennessee Williams, received a scaled-down presentation on Thursday, July 10, as the opener of Merola Opera Program’s 2014 season. Previn’s Streetcar, which was commissioned by San Francisco Opera under former General Director Lotfi Mansouri, received its world premiere at the War Memorial Opera House in 1998 with a huge orchestra of 70 instrumentalists. Peter Grunberg, who serves as Michael Tilson Thomas’ personal music assistant and also as a musical coach at San Francisco Opera, thought Previn’s top-heavy orchestration of Streetcar was both unnecessary and a formidable obstacle to performances of this opera. So Grunberg, at the urging of conductor Mark Morash, undertook to reduce the orchestra from 70 to 40 players. It was this new, scaled-down version that was presented, under the baton of Mark Morash, at Everett Auditorium in the Mission.

I must confess that I have never understood the admiration many people profess to have for Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. It combines an over-the-top hysterical woman, Blanche Dubois, and a brutally violent man, Stanley Kowalski, in a farrago of lies, deceit and downright stupidity that culminates in a brutal rape. In creating an opera from this unwholesome hodgepodge, Composer André Previn was very faithful to the play’s text. And therein, as I see it, lies half the problem. Previn composed jazz-inflected ‘conversational’ music; but it is extremely difficult music for the vocalists to sing, for they are forever singing against rather than with the orchestra.

This being said, however, it was the singers who came out best in the opening night performance of Merola’s Streetcar. As Blanche Dubois, a role written for Renée Fleming, soprano Julie Adams was a vocal standout, hitting all the right notes, and offering an appropriately affected acting style that summed up the character of Blanche as a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In the role of Stanley Kowalski, baritone Thomas Gunther made the best of the few extended passages his character gets to sing; but he was dramatically believable as the brutal husband of Blanche’s sister, Stella. Adelaide Boedecker had some lovely moments as Stella, her soprano voice giving eloquent expression in a wordless vocalise to the sexual fulfillment she finds in her marriage with Stanley. Tenor Casey Candebat was outstanding as Mitch, the workmate of Stanley’s who falls naively in love with Blanche only to learn the truth about Blanche’s past when the suspicious Stanley ferrets out his sister-in-law’s dark secrets. The ensuing confrontation between a drunken Mitch and Blanche is the highlight of the opera, for when Mitch shouts that he has never really known her and now sees the reality, Blanche retorts, “Who wants the real? I want Magic.” 

This “I want magic” aria is one of the few truly lyrical passages in this strident, jagged opera. Here Blanche lays out her desire for a dream-self that bears little relation to humdrum and often-sordid reality. Perhaps, in the end, it’s this magical transformative quality in Blanche that so appeals to people like, for example, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who celebrated Blanche’s character in his film Todo sobre mi Madre/All about My Mother. Blanche Dubois, like Almodóvar’s cinematic characters, tenaciously believes till the end, even as her fragile hold on reality disintegrates, that there is more truth in dreams than in stark reality. 

In the role of Eunice Hubbell, Stella’s upstairs neighbor, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonnet gave a fine performance; and as her husband, Steve, tenor Benjamin Werley gave a creditable account of this minor role. Tenor Minglie Lei was effective as the young boy who comes to collect money for the Kowalskis’ newspaper subscription, only to find himself the object of a sad and sordid seduction attempt by the ever more grasping Blanche. Mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandani sang the role of the Mexican flower-vendor who sells flowers “for the dead,” herself a prefiguration of death. Finally, Baritone Alexander Elliott and soprano Amanda Woodbury sang the roles of the doctor and nurse who arrive at the end of the opera to take the unsuspecting Blanche away to a mental institution. 

Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi did an excellent job of moving his characters around the set of the two-room Kowalski apartment. Particularly effective were the many exits and entrances through the bathroom door; and this seems grimly appropriate given the dark nature of Tennessee Williams’ vision of humanity. Conductor Mark Morash gave a fine account of the opera’s score, though I must say that I do not like this edgy, often crude score. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this scaled-down version of Streetcar has got to be preferable to the full-fledged, over-the-top orchestral version originally penned by Previn. However, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to check out the original version. In fact, I doubt I’ll want to see Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire ever again, in whatever version.