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S & H Opera review

A Streetcar Named Desire, LSO, Andre Previn (con), Barbican, 27th June 2003 (G & A D)


Composer by André Previn
Libretto by Philip Littell
Based on the play by Tennessee Williams
The London Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by the composer
Directed by Brad Dalton
Renée Fleming Blanch 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
plus Ian Midlane, Clare Leahy, Jeffrey Kaplow


Tennessee Williams' great American play A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in New York in 1947, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. Four years later the film version, remarkably with the same director and main cast, all bar Tandy, who was replaced by Vivien Leigh, swept the Oscars (Leigh, Hunter, Malden all received awards, as did Richard Day and George James Hopkins for b/w set decoration, besides which the film was nominated in a further eight categories) and became a screen legend. The film made a star of Brando, and was the first Hollywood feature to offer, courtesy of Alex North, a serious orchestral score which incorporated elements of composed jazz. At the same time as Streetcar was making its debut on the New York stage an 18 year old André Previn was making his first steps into a career as a film composer, penning uncredited background music for the Frank Sinatra-Peter Lawford New York MGM musical, It Happened in Brooklyn (1947). 50 years later and these parallel events intersected when Previn, who in between had balanced phenomenally successful careers in film music, jazz and as a classical conductor, premiered in San Francisco his opera based upon Streetcar.

According to Anthony Holden in the Independent on Sunday (29 June 2003) a consensus developed in San Francisco (in other words critics were too sheepish to offer, or even have, their own unsupported opinions) that the opera was "soundtrack music", the implication being that it wasn't very good. Though why soundtrack music shouldn't be very good is never addressed. It was noted that Previn had considerable soundtrack experience in musicals. Indeed he has - apart from writing first-rate scores for such films as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1960 remake), Elmer Gantry (1960) and Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce (1963) (for which he won an Oscar), Previn won further Oscars for his work adapting Gigi, Porgy and Bess and My Fair Lady, and was nominated an additional nine times for Three Little Words, Kiss Me Kate, It's Always Fair Weather, Pepe, Bells Are Ringing, Elmer Gantry, Two For the Seesaw, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Jesus Christ, Superstar. Clearly a man who knows more than a little about words and music.

Previn's Streetcar is nonetheless not a musical but a fully-fledged opera, written specifically with the beautiful voice of perhaps America's greatest current soprano, Renée Fleming in the role of Blanche. Little need be said about the story; the opera shortens the play but remains faithful, the tale of Blanche reunited with her sister Stella in a rough rooming house in New Orleans being familiar to anyone who has seen either the stage original or the film. The first act is somewhat slow to get going, but the second and third acts increase the dramatic impact as Blanche's character is revealed in increasing detail and she begins to unravel under the caustic attentions of Stella's husband, Stanley.

This is a new work, an opera based on a play in the same way Verdi based operatic work on Shakespeare, so it is dispiriting to find critics first noting that the production is semi-staged - and therefore clearly intending to place more emphasis on the music than the acting - then berating the performances, particularly of Ms Fleming, for not being up to the standards of a first rate actress in the play. This is not the play, and there is no first rate stage actress in the world who can sing opera half so well as Renée Fleming. That obvious point aside, which shouldn't need to be made but which sadly does, Streetcar is a powerful piece of work, taking its time to unfold over a three-and-a-half-hour evening (including an hour's worth of intervals). Fleming sings with heartfelt commitment and great beauty, being especially moving in her final aria in which Blanche moves entirely into a romantic fantasy world. Janice Watson compliments her superbly as Stella, Rodney Gilfry makes a complex and understandable Stanley and Anthony Dean Griffey found great sympathy in Mitch, with a performance which really won the audience over. The acting may not be up to London or Broadway stage standards, but then it doesn’t need to be and no reasonable person would expect it to be. Fleming is fine, the only doubt arising from the fact that even in her mid-forties she remains rather too remarkably beautiful to play a woman of a certain age who is on the verge of losing her looks.

Previn's music does brilliantly what it has been so attacked for, serving as a soundtrack to the drama, yet expanding into richly melodic writing in the key encounters, such as a tentatively romantic evening between Blanche and Mitch. One should note that Previn pays due homage to North's introduction of composed jazz into film music back in 1951, and there are also homages to other cinema sounds of the era - Franz Waxman's Sunset Boulevard (1951) and Bernard Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1948) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) may be faintly detected. North is the film composer often cited as the finest of all for the ability to subtly underscore dialogue, and following his model, with music which also takes a line from Samuel Barber - particularly Knoxville: Summer 1915 - and the clear open vitality of Alan Hovhaness, Previn offers a score which is understated, lyrical, yet when necessary, abrasively confrontational. The rape scene for instance leaves nothing in doubt as the ferocity of what is happening, though all we see are the two singers standing still bathed in blood red light.

It may not be great opera in the sense the critics expect, but it is a dramatic, entertaining and rewarding evening well spent. And it is valid dramatic opera which acknowledges the passage of time, the invention of both jazz and cinema, as well as more "serious" American music of the 20th century. The violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who was seated directly behind us, certainly thought it was all worth while, standing up at the end of each act clapping and cheering with wonderful gusto. But then perhaps she is just biased, afterall, she did recently marry the composer.

Gary & Anita Dalkin



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