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A Streetcar Named Desire, in Opera

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Last week, Carnegie Hall presented a semi-staged performance of André Previn's opera, a Streetcar Named Desire, based on a play of the same name by Tennessee Williams. The performance was also the New York premiere of the work, composed in 1998.

This opera would not be the same thing without the soprano it had been written for, Renée Fleming. She was there, accompanied by the vocally luscious soprano Susanna Phillips in the role of Stella, who made a good contrast. Phillips has a gorgeous and large voice, more so than Fleming -- but this is fitting, for Stella is more earthy and sensual than her sister, and highlighted the diaphanous quality of Blanche's character.

For all her flirting with Mitch (excellently performed by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, who sang the same role at the world premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 1998) and her kissing the newspaper collection boy (not to mention her disreputable past), Fleming's Blanche is not sensual. She is not a vamp or siren; it is not physical gratification she seeks, but somehow, salvation. Her seduction of men is a byproduct of her fragile mind and her desire to live in a dreamland, and over the course of the three-hour opera, Fleming slowly builds up an intricate world of frail fantasies and a shimmering and beautiful alternate reality that captures the audience's imagination far more than the realities of everyone else around her. Her aria, "soft people have got to shimmer and glow" is an example; the allure of the ethereal that Fleming conjures up is a lovely respite after the rough reality Stanley insists on bringing everyone down to. Bartione from New Zealand, Teddy Tahu Rhodes took on the role of the brutal and rough brother-in-law. His physical presence was certainly very intimidating, but his voice sat a bit too low in his throat, making his singing sound too deep and hollow, instead of coming forth with virile power.

Previn's opera is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Williams' play, and the music is equally unambiguous. The style is a mixture of many things -- there is not much new or surprising, but Previn brings together various styles to fit each character or scene. Blues float through the opera, Blanche is characterized by strong lyricism and has a few dreamy arias, while the rape scene seems to mirror a similar scenario in Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtzensk District. One of the most haunting moments was at the end of the first act, when Stella returns to her husband's bed after being beaten by him. Oblivious to Blanche's pained and genuine concern, she hums a wordless irreverent tune, heavy with pleasure and euphoria. For Stella, everything seems alright as long as she can make love with her husband, while Blanche is left standing there feeling broken because she covets the kind of peace and satisfaction her sister has, yet feels revolted by Stanley's coarse masculinity.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a dark play -- I thought only the Russians wrote such bleak, depressing things -- but the dreamy beauty of Fleming makes it shine. The Orchestra of St. Luke's, conducted by Patrick Summers, provided vivid musical background, and Brad Dalton's direction and Alan Adelman's lighting coped very well with the restrictions of a semi-staging. It would be nice to have this work performed regularly here -- a popular play, eclectic music and a star soprano -- what's not to love?