Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


André PREVIN A Streetcar Named Desire - An opera based on the play by Tennessee Williams  Renée Fleming; Elizabeth Futral; Rodney Gilfrey; Anthony Dean Giffey San Francisco Opera conducted by André Previn DG 459 366-2 [161:53]



Elia Kazan’ film version of Tennessee William’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was made in 1951. It captured Oscars for Vivien Leigh (Blanche) Kim Hunter (Stella) and Karl Malden (Mitch) and Oscar nominations for Tennessee Williams, himself as screenplay writer; director Kazan; and Marlon Brando (Stanley); and, of course, Alex North. Alex North’s ground-breaking, jazz-based score is justly celebrated. Therefore, with André Previn’s considerable experience of film music (he worked on more than 40 films between 1949 and 1973), this recording is of considerable interest to the serious student of film music. Commissioned by and for the San Francisco Opera, this is Previn’s first opera. He has, however, accumulated considerable experience in writing music for the stage. In 1969, he wrote Coco – a musical for Broadway and, in 1974, another musical for the London stage, The Good Companions. He also wrote, in collaboration with Tom Stoppard, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, a work for actors and orchestra that was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the London Symphony Orchestra in 1976. [Many film enthusiasts will recall that Claire Bloom made a memorable Blanche on the London stage.]

Previn’s music is essentially more ‘classical’ than the score composed by Alex North but the jazz influences are nonetheless very apparent in creating the necessary atmosphere of hopeless degradation and sleazy madness. Previn says: "Everyone knows that I’ve played a lot of jazz in my lifetime, so people are bound to say that there is a jazz influence in the harmonies or the rhythmic patterns. I like to quote Aaron Copland who replied to questions about jazz in his work by saying, ‘I didn’t grow up in a vacuum.’ I did not set out to write a jazz-influenced score, but I didn’t set out not to do so either." Previn commented that he also decided to stick closely to the speech patterns. Many singers have noted the musicality of Tennessee Williams’s writing.

The opera is, of course, dominated from the start by the character of Blanche DuBois, and Renée Fleming is very compelling. At the start of the opera, she arrives in New Orleans to stay with her younger sister, Stella, who lives in a cramped apartment with her brutal husband Stanley Kowalski (made famous by the moody magnificent Brando). Blanche berates Stella for living in such squalor, graphically portrayed in the orchestra. Later, putting on her airs and graces, Blanche sings of her former genteel existence that has been shattered by impoverishment caused by relations dying and leaving nothing. Previn’s sleazy jazz figures and almost ghoulish accompaniment tells us a different story, however, one of depravity, sex and booze, that becomes only too clear in Act III. As Blanche gazes at herself in the mirror, Previn allows her some sympathy and pathos. When, in Act II, she sings ‘Soft people have got to shimmer and glow’, he protects her with soft-focus music that is almost Delius-like, warm and impressionistic, before a few intrusive concluding bars remind us of Blanche’s self-delusion. Later in the same Act, as Blanche recalls the tragedy of her first love and marriage to a homosexual who later shot himself, the music becomes increasingly hysterical distorted and grotesque. Blanche only feels secure in her dream world as she tells Mitch in her ACT III aria "Real! Who wants real?…I want magic!" As Previn says, "This aria is sultry and torpid and you can feel the heat and humidity, as well as understand Blanche’s desperation and her special grace." In Act III after Stanley has raped her, off-stage, to a most gritty, evocative, three-minute Interlude, Blanche descends into madness. Her final, poignant aria ‘I can smell the sea air’ is very moving, as is her last line as she is led away by the doctor, ‘Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’

Rodney Gilfrey as Stanley cannot displace the Brando image, but that is not to say that Gilfrey fails to convey the complexities of his character: ignorant, insensitive and brutal but also tender and vulnerable. The scene in which he opens Stella’s eyes to Blanche’s delusions as he ransacks Blanache’s trunk is sardonic and vicious enough he makes the Act III denouement with Blanche before he rapes her quite riveting. Anthony Dean Griffey is a sensitive Mitch, mother’s boy and too weak to make a satisfactory saviour for Blanche. His Act II aria, ‘I’m not a boy…’ shows us his humble humanity but also his own romantic self-delusion. Self-delusion is a character trait that is shared by the otherwise sensible Stella, splendidly portrayed by Elizabeth Futral. Stella can forgive the beating that Stanley has inflicted on her and cradle him like a lost child afterwards when he has sobered sufficiently to be remorseful.

’Not a brilliant success, the unrelenting decadent harrowing story and theme tend to grind the production down, but it is certainly a most dramatic and intensely musical experience.


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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