A Streetcar Named Desire
Opera Australia's new production of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire has a great deal going for it. I'll get to all of that in a moment. But its biggest advantage is the most obvious one of all — it is A Streetcar Named Desire. Transformed into an opera, it remains well and truly the beautiful baby of Tennessee Williams, a work of incandescent genius which any relatively faithful realisation would have difficulty destroying.
Phillip Littell's libretto isn't always the most subtly wrought adaptation but it nevertheless remains very close to its source. Even where the poetry is lost, the plot is not — and in Williams' play, both aspects are as enthralling as each other. Whereas in previous centuries we can find operas whose primary claim to brilliance is their music, inspired enough to make libretto and plot secondary concerns, Streetcar works in reverse. Provided it was set with a reasonable degree of intelligence and flair, it would always have fascinated because the story it tells is fascinating. There's very little could mask the essential shimmer and glow of this play and its beguiling protagonist. If it sounds like I'm saying that any kind of operatic Streetcar given any kind of production would be some kind of success, that's because I more or less am. If Tennessee Williams' basic creation is left intact then the result, even if lacklustre, could never be wholly hideous.
Lacklustre, however, this Streetcar most certainly is not. Opera Australia has lavished the best of everything upon it and such pampering has paid off spectacularly well. Every aspect of this production has been realised with intelligence, sensitivity and passionate engagement. Designer John Stoddart's production is of startling, spectral beauty. His sets are realistic but not quite real, New Orleans Gothic in greys and blacks. The women are dressed in pastels — Blanche always in shades of blue; Stanley as plain and practical as can be until the terrifying appearance of his devil-red silk pjyamas. Michael Gruchy's film projections are used to mesmerising effect — images of Belle Reve and old South grandeur which bleed hauntingly in and out of the rundown Kowalski home. Bruce Beresford's direction is subtle and surefooted, concerned at every moment to present truth and not melodrama. Even where Previn's setting is at its most sweepingly operatic, he never allows things to go over the top. He strikes an ideal balance between musical showcase and credible theatre, so that you'd almost — but never entirely — forget it was an opera. Tom Woods is an attentive and revelatory conductor, bringing out exciting colours and sounds that even in eight months of immersion in the Deutsche Grammophon recording, I'd never entirely appreciated before. What a difference a theatre makes. Previn's jazz and blues inspired phrases come to far more vivid life with space in which to breathe than squashed onto a CD, and what seemed needlessly complex orchestration makes far more sense when matched to action onstage. I'm still not in love with the score but I felt more affection for it last night than I have all year.
Animating this enchanting framework is a spectacularly strong cast, with even the smallest roles given excellent and individualised voice. Dominica Matthews is superb as Eunice Hubbell, imbuing Previn's slightly merciless Sprechstimme lines with as much music as possible and resisting the temptation to caricature which such a brief role could easily afford. Tenor Andrew Brunsdon is spot on as her rough and slightly hopeless husband, Steve. As the Spanish flower-seller, Catherine Carby is a wonderful luxury. Her monologue is one of the opera's oddest passages, a cryptic tirade about death and fire and flowers. On the DG recording it's given a dementedly exaggerated reading by Josepha Gayer which recalls nothing so much as Bela Lugosi's inexplicable ranting in the Ed Wood classic Glen or Glenda?. Catherine's more understated performance — and much sweeter voice — turn this scene from laughable to genuinely eerie and effective. Angus Wood is convincingly earnest and awkward as the young collector whom Blanche half seduces.
Antoinette Halloran is a revelation. She expertly captures both Stella's powerful attraction to Stanley and her genuine love and compassion for her sister. This is not the earthy, slightly immature Stella of Elia Kazan's film. Antoinette's Stella — indeed, Previn's Stella — is a bit more thoughtful and sympathetic. She adores Stanley to distraction — the physical chemistry between them is evident, but so too is a gentler affection. Previn gives Stella some of the opera's loveliest, purest music, which Antoinette sings with poise and surprising power. Her "I can hardly stand it" in Act One is glittering and impassioned; her morning-after vocalise at the end of the same act a smoky, sensual knockout. I can only hope she has opportunities to perform the role elsewhere — this is a truly impressive performance.
As Mitch, Stuart Skelton is one of most perfect pieces of casting I've ever seen. He's built for the role. This is an important concern in any case, but especially so because Mitch actually sings his measurements. That said — they're wrong. Phillip Littell, for reasons known only to himself, has made Mitch a full sixty-three pounds heavier than in the play — he goes from 207 to 270. For Stuart, they've shaved a few inches off Mitch's height as well; but at 6'1 he's still just as imposing as Blanche tells him he is. Much more important, of course, is his vocal suitability — and he's an absolute dream. He shapes Mitch's surprisingly elegant lines beautifully, his easy, mellifluous sound underpinned by just enough heldentenor solidity. It's just the right mix for Mitch, youthful sweetness edged with something a bit heavier — a diamond in the rough. His acting conveys much the same sense — a genuinely sweet natured boy, if a bit dopey and awkward. Even when he's drunk and gets rough with Blanche, his movements and reactions speak more of bewilderment and disillusionment than real violence.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes brings his very own brand of charisma and physicality to the role of Stanley. The self declared "king around here", he dominates his home (and his wife) with calm and unselfconscious assurance. Stanley is the polar opposite of Blanche — there's no affectation here, nothing false. He's as natural in his tender moments with Stella as he is in his violent treatment of Blanche — whatever he does, he does because he feels it's his right. Thus there's an odd sort of sincerity to his character which prevents him becoming entirely despicable. He's brutal, yes — but not necessarily malicious. Though he looks like Lucifer himself when he emerges from the bathroom in his red silk pyjamas, his most hideous act — his rape of Blanche — is driven more by a primal, animal urge than calculated evil. That's not an excuse. Stanley is still bad news — but in Teddy's hands he's at least three dimensional bad news. His voice, in its own way, is just powerful — and utterly unmistakeably. Teddy sounds quite unlike anybody. It's a dark, deep-set, bronzed kind of sound. Smooth as smooth can be but at the same time richly textured, full of glorious and surprising vocal colours. It maybe isn't always the most conventionally attractive voice (or maybe that's just me) but there's a definite allure to it just the same, not to mention irresistible authority. Little wonder this is his fourth Stanley.
Blanche. Yvonne Kenny is Blanche. I mean that — Yvonne Kenny is Blanche. She's not Vivien Leigh's Blanche, so small and fragile that you want to look after her right from the start. Nor is she Renée Fleming's Blanche, oversized and overtly tragic. Yvonne's Blanche takes a little longer to warm to. The cracks in the façade don't show straight away — thus in the first act we see her mostly as she wishes to appear; or in the way she's perceived by others. Prim, superior. A little insincere. Of course, there are moments. In front of the mirror, before Stella arrives — "I look so old". But she maintains the lie quite well for the first act. Then in the second act she starts to crumble and it's here that her performance really blooms and draws us in. Her gestures have been so contained and refined that when Stanley finally gets to her and she starts thrusting papers violently into his hands — then stops just as suddenly and regains composure — the effect is quite shocking. She portrays Blanche's descent into madness with heartbreaking stillness, a stillness which makes Stanley's every push and shove that much more brutal. In the scene with the young collector she is mesmerising. Just before Stanley brings her to her lowest point, she is at her most breathtakingly beautiful, a vision of loveliness in her ballgown and tiara. It doesn't look like a "worn out Mardi Gras outfit" at all; she looks perfect and so when Stanley pushes her and the clasp comes undone and she's left exposed in her slip, the cruelty and humiliation are that much worse.
In Blanche, Previn has devised one of the most taxing roles in the soprano repertoire. Just the psychology of it is an immense emotional undertaking. It also has to be sung. It is not an easy sing — it's incredibly long and vocally demanding. At a point in her career when nobody would look askance at her for sticking to recitals and vineyard concerts and the odd Hanna Glawari, Yvonne has taken up this monumental challenge instead — and she emerges transcendentally victorious. She throws herself into this music with a lyrical forcefulness and fullness of tone which surprised even me. Blanche's music reflects her mental fragmentation, alternating between frantic, spiky vocal writing and comparative peace, with simpler, more conventional music. She's in electrifying command in both states. The story of her young husband is riveting, brought with exquisite judgement to its unbearable climax. Her pianissimi are celestial. And the truth is, if you don't happen to be among the 10543 or so people who will see this show in Sydney, your life will be forever poorer for having missed her "I want magic!" — a thing of such sublime beauty I can't trust even my own floridity to do it justice. Yvonne's Blanche is an extraordinary achievement — among her finest to date — and a priceless gift.
Indeed this production in its entirety is one to be treasured. Even with a few opening night hiccups, last night was a singularly powerful performance. As the season progresses, I've no doubt it will intensify and improve even further — and when it does, it'll be electric. Opera Australia has something rare and valuable on its hands. A remarkable triumph for all concerned.