A lush and sultry `Streetcar'

OperaReview

May 17, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Blanche DuBois is depending on the kindness of audiences at two Kennedy Center venues these days. You can hear this mentally fragile, sexually volatile flower of Southern gentility speaking Tennessee Williams' ripe prose at the Eisenhower Theater, or singing them at the Opera House. The latter manifestation is courtesy of Washington National Opera, which opened a striking production of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire Saturday night to complement the center's Tennessee Williams Festival.

When it was unveiled by the San Francisco Opera in 1998, Previn's transformation of the Williams classic looked pretty and certainly communicated the drama, but not with the play's emotional punch. (Philip Littell wrote the faithful libretto.)

For all of Previn's craftsmanship -- sensible, sensitive vocal lines, brilliant orchestration -- the music suggested a film score with sung dialogue.

It still sounds that way now and then in the Washington staging, but the opera somehow comes across as a stronger force. The mix of the lushly romantic with the sultry and insinuating adds up to a more consistently effective musical package.

The work gains considerably from Michael Yeargan's sets (originally conceived for a 2002 Austin Lyric Opera production) and Brad Dalton's direction. Yeargan overdoes post-modernist cliches, especially opposite walls with multiple doors, but his edgy design -- a kind of off-kilter tunnel, incisively complemented by Robert Wierzel's prismatic lighting -- places us inside Blanche's mentally tenuous, increasingly isolated world.

Some of Dalton's ideas are heavy-handed, such as the young man in a white suit who wanders through the opera (one of several ghosts from Blanche's past who turn up). And the director gets carried away with having a lot of buffed, sweaty extras pop up as neighbors, onlookers and, frequently, props movers (this production has more beefcake than an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue).

But, most of the time, Dalton drives home the multiple conflicts of the bleak tale. And, in a welcome case of restraint, he lets the music and the lighting provide the only movement in the climactic collision of Blanche and Stanley Kowalski.

On Saturday, Susannah Glanville inhabited the role of Blanche tellingly and sang with extraordinary warmth. Teddy Tahu Rhodes fit the strutting, stud-muffin Stanley to a (ripped) T (shirt), brought down a peg only by a couple of strained high notes. Beautifully nuanced singing and incisive acting made Peggy Kriha Dye (Stella) and Anthony Dean Griffey (Mitch) remarkably sympathetic. Previn's obviously authoritative conducting was matched by polished, passionate playing from the orchestra.

Streetcar may not be a total masterpiece (some trims and revisions could help), but this production gives it quite a satisfying musical and theatrical ride.

Opera

What: A Streetcar Named Desire

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, Virginia and New Hampshire aves., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Friday, 7 p.m. May 24, 7:30 p.m. May 27, 2 p.m. May 30, 7:30 p.m. June 2

Admission: $41 to $285

Call: 202-295-2400

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