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 -
San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by the composer
DVD - ARTHAUS MUSIK 100
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.