Surprise: While certainly flawed, the opera is not nearly as weak as certain reviewers have insisted, and is often much stronger. At its best, Previn's conservative musical language lends poetic resonance to Philip Littell's libretto (essentially a pared-down version of the original text), while his deployment of voices and orchestra is remarkably assured for a first opera.
If long stretches of the score seem little more than background music to one of the seminal works of American theater, you have to wonder how many other composers could have done any better. Previn and Littell set a near-impossible task for themselves. Great literary works seldom make great operas, and, besides, how do you improve on perfection — that of the stage original or that of the classic 1951 film that starred Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski?
Previn created the role of Blanche — the unstable, delusional Southern aristocrat who suffers a nervous breakdown following her rape by Stanley, her sister's brutish husband — for soprano Renee Fleming, Lyric's creative consultant as of 2010. Her championing of “Streetcar” 15 years after its premiere gave rise to a semi-staged version, directed by Brad Dalton, in which she starred earlier this month at Carnegie Hall. That is essentially the same version Lyric has brought to Chicago for four performances that are sold out on subscription. (A limited number of tickets are available for a Student Night performance on April 5 featuring an alternate cast.)
This “Streetcar” is primarily Fleming's show, although she received fine backing from an able supporting cast that included soprano Susanna Phillips as Stella, Blanche's sister; baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley; and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, recreating his role from the original cast, that of Mitch, Blanche's awkward suitor. The Lyric Orchestra under Evan Rogister occupied the rear of the stage, with the stage action taking place at the front. The placement of the players brought forward the orchestra's bluesy and jazzy evocations of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, making the musicians feel almost like additional characters in the drama.
Previn's singable vocal lines honor Fleming's rich middle register and an upper range where Blanche's dreamy lyrical musings can take wing, and do. Her high pianissimos, floating in the jasmine-scented air of her lyrical showpieces “I want magic!” and “I can smell the sea air,” held the audience at rapt attention. The problem was that these very soliloquies, gorgeously sung as they are, also make the dramatic action grind to a halt. (Also, did anyone else notice that Fleming plays wistful better than she plays neurotic?)
Stylistically the composer is all over the map — a lot of Britten here, Barber and Shostakovich there. There is nothing terribly original about any of the music, even if the scoring is expert. The most memorable moments are those passages where the composer taps into his roots as a jazz pianist. All of the music goes down very easily in the course of a long performance running more than three hours, even with substantial cuts.
Two scenes really leapt out at Tuesday's performance. One was Stella's wordless, post-coital humming over the softly jazzy accompaniment of plucked double bass; here Phillips, with her peaches-and-cream soprano, made Stella a believable presence in the drama, caught between sisterly devotion and her co-dependent relationship with the abusive Stanley.
The other was the confessional scene between Blanche and Mitch that ended Act 2, when the heroine, an alcoholic nymphomaniac haunted by the ghosts of her past, wistfully recalled the suicide of her young, closeted gay husband. Fleming and Griffey brought out the best in each other as singing actors. Griffey's powerful, plangent tenor aptly reflected a morally decent, sensitive soul trapped in an unwieldy body.
The role of Stanley contains no arias, so Rhodes had to convey the character's loutish, libido-driven nature more through acting and physical presence than singing. His strong baritone was matched by six-pack abs, a tattooed left arm and a feral way of stalking the stage. Smaller roles were appreciatively taken by Victoria Livengood (Eunice), Dominic Armstrong (Steve) and Andrew Bidlack (who doubled as the young collector and the ghost of Blanche's hapless young husband).
Director Dalton made a convincing, semi-abstract theater space out of the stage, using chairs, a table, a bed and Blanche's trunk as the main props, which a group of six cigarette-smoking hunks moved around to define the various scenes. Johann Stegmeir designed the costumes, including a succession of 1940s-style dresses for Fleming. The stage space, lit by Duane Schuler, became more and more surreal as Blanche's mind began to collapse and her ties to reality grew ever more tenuous. There were no sets, and none were missed.
Lyric Opera's “A Streetcar Named Desire” (3 stars) repeats March 29, April 3 and 6 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. All performances are sold out. An alternate cast will sing the April 5 Student Night performance; $20 for high school and college students, $29 and $49 for non-students; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600; email@example.com