The Los Angeles Opera mounted André Previn’s 1998 opera based on Tennessee Williams’ dramatic masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, Presented in Director Brad Dalton’s stunningly effective staging, it starred soprano Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois in the role she created 16 years earlier at the San Francisco Opera.
[Below: Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois, with the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, Evan Rogister, conducting behind her; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Joining Fleming was dramatic baritone Ryan McKinny as Stanley Kowalski, soprano Stacey Tappan as Blanche’s sister Stella DuBois Kowalski and dramatic tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (another veteran of the opera’s 1998 world premiere) as Mitch.
[Below: Ryan McKinny as Stanley Kowalski; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Although the advance publicity characterized the production as “semi-staged”, in fact it was a carefully directed and choreographed theatrical experience that eschewed the traditional “sets” in favor of a fluid use of the bare stage on which such props as a bed, chairs, a poker table, and a trunk were periodically rearranged.
The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra is situated at the rear of the stage, with Conductcor Evan Rogister, conducting mid-stage with the drama occurring downstage.
The staging was the work of Brad Dalton, whose conceptualization of how to present “Streetcar” originated at the Austin Lyric Opera, and reconceived for productions for the London Symphony Orchestra and, most recently, the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The production seen in Los Angeles is owned by the Chicago company.
[Below: Stage Director Brad Dalton; resized image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
A core feature of the production are seven actors representing Stanley’s poker buddies, but who also serve, koken-like as the “stagehands” who move the props in rapidly choreographed movements to change the point of view. One has the feeling of fast-moving scene changes in one of the Bard’s plays.
One of the functions of the seven actors is to assemble in what I call the “wolf pack” – a group of leering men, who attempt to inject their sensuality into the path of any attractive woman passing by.
[Below: Stacey Tappan (left) as Stella DuBois Kowalski is ogled by the "wolf pack"; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
The opera, whose libretto is by Phillip Littrell (like composer Previn, a person whose career is associated with Los Angeles), follows Williams’ play closely.
However, Dalton’s staging adds elements that are theatrically absorbing. The boy who arrives to collect money for the Kowalski’s subscription to the newspaper The Evening Star (memorably played by Atlanta tenor Cullen Gandy), who is an object of attraction to Blanche, appears throughout much of the opera.
In Blanche’s hallucinatory final scenes, the image of the Evening Star Collector and her troubled young husband whose suicide she thoughtlessly caused, are merged.
A “ghost” memory of her mother appears and, in the final act, helps dress Blanche in the dress that Stanley will brutally tear off.
[Below: Eunice Hubbell (center, standing at poker table) at which Stanley Kowalski (Ryan McKinny, left, in red shirt), her husband Steve Hubbell (Joshua Guerrero, seated second from right, in shirt sleeves) and Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey, seated right) play cards; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Renée Fleming’s Blanche DuBois and Ryan McKinny’s Stanley Kowalski
One can predict that Renée Fleming’s portrait of the vulnerable Blanche DuBois will in the future be regarded as legendary. Those who can get tickets to see the final two performances in Los Angeles, whether a regular opera-goer or not, should do so.
Blanche is emotionally crippled by the guilt that has overwhelmed her, since she, in a vicious moment, drove a teenage husband struggling with his sexuality, to kill himself.
[Below: Stanley Kowalski (Ryan McKinny, above) expresses doubt about the story told by Blanche DuBois (Renée Fleming, below); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
She coped with the guilt through behaviors so promiscuous, that the U. S. Army placed her home as off limits to its soldiers, that a fleabag hotel asked that she return its key, and the school at which she taught fired her for sexual involvement with an underage boy.
Yet, in her fragile state, she affected the pretensions of the proper Southern belle, with the social prejudices against those whom she and her class regard as “common”.
[Below: Stanley Kowalski (Ryan McKinny, above), having behaved violently, finds a way to make up with his wife, Stella (Stacey Tappan, on floor; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Certainly qualifying as “common” by her definition, is Blanche’s brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, who resents her unexpected appearance into their two-room apartment, her apparent decision to stay with them indefinitely, her lapping up his liquor, and her general disrespect for him.
McKinny’s sensuality, physicality and large dramatic baritone provide an indelible portrait of a character who will not submit to Blanche’s pretensions.
It is Stanley that proves to be Blanche’s nemesis, seeking out information about what happened to the family estate in Laurel, Mississippi and why she left there to appear in his New Orleans home.
He rips away her pretensions, reveals his knowledge of her sexual conquests to her potential husband, Mitch, and, in the final act, forces himself on her sexually.
When she tries to tell her sister about the rape, all her credibility has vanished, and Stella joins in the plan to commit Blanche to a mental institution.
[Below: Stacey Tappan as Stella; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Stacey Tappan’s Stella and Anthony Dean Griffey’s Mitch
Stacey Tappan has gained familiarity in California opera companies in a variety of roles, but her role as Stella establishes her credentials as a lead performer in world-rank companies.
Exuding sexuality to match the animal magnetism of McKinny’s Stanley, Tappan was vocally brilliant, receiving an early ovation for her first act solo.
[Below: Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey, left) courts Blanche (Renée Fleming, right); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Anthony Dean Griffey, reprising his role as Mitch from the 1998 world premiere, is obviously at one with the character of the repressed mama’s boy, who, without Stanley’s interference, might have created a workable marriage with Blanche.
Beautifully sung and acted, Griffey’s Mitch was an endearing portrait of a good-hearted, but very lonely, man.
Completing the cast were Victoria Livengood as Eunice Hubbell, Joshua Guerrero as Steve Hubbell, Robert Shampain as a Doctor and Cynthia Marty as a Nurse.
[Below: Blanche DuBois (Renée Fleming, left) is attacked by Stanley Kowalski (Ryan McKinny, right); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Comments on the Opera and Production
It is my belief that North America will be recognized as a major source of new ideas that will lead to the survival of opera as a living art form.
Some of these ideas exist in operas that have already been written (several of which I have reviewed in recent months or are scheduled to review in the future).
Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” transforms an iconic American play into an extraordinary American opera. As with other timeless classics, one’s attitudes towards the characters – Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch – can change with the passage of time and through the continuous process of restudying how masterpieces can be presented.
The theatricality of the opera is brilliantly realized in Brad Dalton’s staging of it. In fact, it bridges the art forms of the legitimate stage and opera. (I would imagine that some theater-g0ers with no knowledge of opera might finally “get” opera by seeing how Dalton stages Previn’s “Streetcar”.)
We need not think of Fleming, McKinny, Tappan and Griffey as opera stars, singing the words of a Tennessee Williams play.
Instead we can think of them as four savvy theatrical performers, who happen to have world-class operatic voices.
I recommend the production and the Los Angeles Opera cast enthusiastically, not only to opera-goers, but to theater-goers as well – even those who wouldn’t expect to “like” opera.
For my review of another Renée Fleming performance, see: Fleming, Fabiano, Frizza Fuel San Francisco Opera’s Flaming, Fulfilling First “Lucrezia Borgia” – September 23, 2011.
For my reviews of recent Ryan McKinny performances, see: Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013 and Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014.
See also: Rising Stars: An Interview with Ryan McKinny.
For my reviews of Anthony Dean Griffey performances, see: Anthony Dean Griffey’s Imposing Peter Grimes – Houston Grand Opera, November 12, 2010 and A Feisty, Funny “Fledermaus” – Houston Grand Opera, November 2, 2013.