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André PREVIN (b.1929)
A Streetcar named Desire - opera in three acts to a libretto by Philip Littell based on the play by Tennessee Williams
Blanche DuBois - Renée Fleming (sop); Stella Kowalski - Elizabeth Futral (sop); Stanley Kowalski - Rodney Gilfry; Harold Mitchell - Anthony Dean Griffey; Eunice Hubbell - Judith Forst
San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by the composer
DVD - ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 138  [166.10]
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When André Previn's first opera appeared in September 1998, and was then issued on Deutsche Grammophon [459 366-2, 3 CDs], critical comment ran between hailing Streetcar as a masterpiece - quite one the finest stage works of the last fifty years - to those that dismissed it as a waste of space. Neither extreme is helpful.

Because of Elia Kazan's film adaptation with Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams's play has had worldwide currency for over 50 years. Its storyline is therefore quite familiar - Blanche DuBois, an English teacher, visits her sister Stella. Blanche is supposedly on sick-leave. The real reason - sacked for sexual impropriety with juniors - becomes known later; she has also lost family possessions they had jointly inherited. Stella's husband, Stanley - pig-headed, dominating and violence-inclined when drunk - is suspicious of Blanche and has her investigated. Meanwhile, 'Mitch', one of a card-playing school that resides in the Kowalskis' apartment, is attracted to Blanche; she returns the interest. Their potential relationship is wrecked when Blanche's indiscretions become known - the sensitive Mitch, caring if naïve, also gets heated when alcohol-fuelled … he though, unlike Stanley, doesn't hit the pregnant Stella or rape Blanche. Turning more and more to the bottle, Blanche is eventually led away by a doctor. Or, if you prefer, to quote the booklet: 'Profligacy and debauchery, paranoia and depression - these are the co-ordinates which give the characters their bearings.' Not so Stella, she's a genuinely nice person, trapped in drab surroundings, who tries to find the best in Stanley (described by Blanche as "the king of the jungle"); instead of being out-of-town on the next streetcar, she stands by her man.

Elizabeth Futral's portrayal is outstanding as Stella, a very believable character that one has great sympathy with. The other notable performance is Anthony Dean Griffey who introduces Mitch as a likeable, thoughtful man who eventually feels betrayed, while remaining smitten, by Blanche's lies and descent into a booze-ridden 'other' life.

If this suggests that neither Fleming nor Gilfry quite match such a complete sense of characterisation, then I find Fleming, superb vocally, slightly outside of Blanche's always troubled and worsening mental state - 100% singer, 80% actress. Gilfry opts for a rather stereotype oaf-like rendition of Stanley; again he's on-song, literally, but there's a bit too much 'method' to his acting. Judith Forst does well as the woman upstairs, the neighbourly busybody always on the alert for scandal and gossip.

This 'world premiere performance' is traditionally staged - claustrophobic rooms, utilitarian furniture and a post-war atmosphere are well conveyed; the filming of it, close to the characters, enhances the domesticity and tension. One technical blip is the abrupt audio-visual cut-off at the end of Act 2 - we are plunged from there straight into Previn returning to conduct Act 3. Elsewhere, bursts of applause after numbers are retained, as is, quite rightly, all the curtain-calls at the opera's close. The sound is very good, the balance giving equal billing to singers and orchestra, albeit I find dynamics somewhat equalised and the orchestral perspective has a tendency to shrink occasionally with certain percussion instruments rather backward if clear. Picture quality is fine and consistent; all in all there is little to complain of in terms of reproduction. 59 chapters (tracks) are included; French and German sub-titles are offered, not though English surtitles, which would have been handy.

When I first heard Streetcar it was from DG's CD release. I thought Previn had done a very professional job. If that sounds like faint praise, it isn't. It seemed to me that Previn had undertaken to not get in the way of the story or its characters. Rather, by adding a musical commentary he would bring Williams's play to a larger audience, one who would appreciate it through music. In this he succeeds admirably. Stylistically, Previn, seamlessly and with consummate skill, integrates American expression that recalls Copland and William Schuman with Bergian tone rows (Wozzeck and Lulu are in the orchestral texture) to which is added 'local colour' in the form of Duke Ellington in Harlem-mode. There is also a kinship with Benjamin Britten, which Previn has acknowledged, as to how words and music are integrated. It's not a mish-mash though. Throughout, Previn's ability to colour, complement and heighten the characters and drama is both immediate, thoughtfully invented and part of a long-term plan.

With three acts playing for around two hours forty minutes (58, 40 and 62), motivic writing is essential to focus on the narrative. Previn's identifications are carefully crafted, and although his writing is always melodic, he doesn't designate show-stopping tunes; his preference is to underscore the unfolding drama with superbly orchestrated harmonic twists and dramatic gestures, which hold the attention both as music and as an extension of the action. There might be a criticism to extend in Previn's over-use of parlando as a word-setting device; there are though some radiant lyrical lines for Blanche, culminating in 'I can smell the sea air', a moving, rapturous expression of longing - right up there with the best of such songs - which Blanche shares with Stella before being taken away.

If an audio-only appraisal of Streetcar suggested we needed the pictures as well, then this DVD is a timely release. When we enter the pit for several orchestral interludes, Previn is found conducting his own music with typical clarity and modesty. Voyeurs should perhaps note that Blanche's rape is given to the orchestra, so you'll have to imagine the scene while the composer conducts a vivid instrumental depiction.

In the final analysis, I'm pleased to have returned to Streetcar and had my interest enhanced by viewing the stage action. I shall be keeping the DG release of course, but this DVD must be first choice and documents a fine achievement for all involved. Meanwhile, I look forward to the second opera that André Previn is currently writing.

Colin Anderson

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