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Night of the Soprano: The Ballad of Blanche DuBois

Ed Rampell: With an operatic powerhouse of Fleming’s caliber and range, whose arias may melt your heart, this becomes very much the ballad of Blanche DuBois and a guided tour of her tortured psyche.
Streetcar Named Desire

Renee Fleming as Blanche and Ryan McKinny as Stanley

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Opera Review

Translating an artwork composed for one medium into another is a fascinating aesthetic adventure (except when it’s done primarily to cash in on a piece’s high profile name recognition factor). Tennessee Williams’ classic New Orleans-set A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on the Great White Way in 1947 and won the Pulitzer Prize, is a case in point. This searing drama contains many of the elements of opera, from overwrought emotions to high tragedy and over the top characters.

Of course, Elia Kazan -- who’d directed the Broadway version -- also rather famously helmed the much-heralded 1951 film version, which won multiple Oscars. With his electrifying, Method-fueled naturalism and magnetic presence, Marlon Brando’s iconic performances as Stanley Kowalski onstage and onscreen -- with his preternaturally gripping swings from brutishness to vulnerability -- dominated the theatrical and Hollywood renderings, as Michael Hackett, UCLA Professor of Theater, Film and Television and Chair of the Department of Theater, pointed out in his pre-curtain lecture at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Likewise, the mercurial, moody, muscular Stanley (bass-baritone Ryan McKinney) dominates Act I of composer André Previn and librettist Philip Littell’s operatic adaptation of Streetcar. The first act contains those familiar, harrowing “Hey Stella!!!” screams the bellowing, bewildered Brando immortalized and his dialogue regarding “the Napoleonic Code,” “lawyer acquaintances,” et al.

However, in Act II the female characters take over, with Stanley mostly offstage. As LA Opera’s powerful production features Renée Fleming -- who co-star McKinney calls “truly the singular star of the opera world” -- this rendition of Streetcar becomes nothing less than the night of the soprano. Previn scored and Littell wrote the lyrics in an age of greater artistic freedom than when the play and movie opened. In their opera, which premiered in San Francisco in 1998 with Fleming as the fading Southern belle (she also played Blanche in a version aired on PBS and has, along with Jessica Tandy, Uta Hagen and Vivian Leigh, stamped an indelible impression upon the part), the second act focuses on Blanche.

Streetcar Named Desire

Thus, with an operatic powerhouse of Fleming’s caliber and range, whose arias may melt your heart, this becomes very much the ballad of Blanche DuBois and a guided tour of her tortured psyche. Freed from censorship’s restraints, Previn, Littell and company daringly delve into Tennessee’s taboo subtext. According to Hackett’s pre-performance talk, Blanche was a forerunner of those teachers who seduce their young students, which has led to her termination as a high school English teacher. The opera also explicitly exposes the bisexuality of Blanche’s young husband (Cullen Gandy, who appears in a white suit and also plays A Young Collector), who, years earlier, [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] had killed himself after she’d confronted him regarding a homoerotic dalliance. This disastrous death and failed marriage haunts the now 36-year-old Blanche, as does the Chekhovian loss of the family’s Mississippi plantation, Belle Reve.

Streetcar Named Desire

Ryan McKinny and Stacey Tappan as Stella.

This, of course, can be translated from the French into English as “Beautiful Dream.” Williams -- who, like Blanche and her sister Stella (sultry soprano Stacey Tappan), hailed from Mississippi -- is presciently commenting on the changing post-Civil War, pre-Civil Rights era South. It’s interesting to note that the name of Stanley’s pal and co-worker and Blanche’s gentleman caller is Mitchell (the poignant tenor Anthony Dean Griffey), whose name may be a reference to Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind (which, interestingly, starred Vivian Leigh, who’d famously portrayed Blanche opposite Brando in the movie). And while it may just be happenstance, Blanche shares a last name with one of America’s foremost Black intellectuals, W.E.B. Du Bois.

Dixie is doomed, as is poor Blanche. A so-called “Polack”, the resentful Kowalski represents the emergence of new demographics in an increasingly urbanized South; the story takes place not in the Magnolia State but in Nawlins. For one who clearly revels in his sheer physicality and dancing the horizontal mambo with wife Stella (inhibited by Blanche’s presence in the small apartment “of raffish charm” with its two rooms separated only by a curtain), Stanley has a clear double standard when it comes to his sister-in-law’s sex life. He’s quite intolerant and openly disdainful of Blanche’s sexuality -- [PLOT SPOILER ALERT!] although apparently not enough to decline taking advantage of it himself in a scene redolent with gang rape imagery. Stella’s relishing of and reveling in Stanley’s (notice how their names sound similar?) sensuality does not stir him to “slut shame” her -- perhaps this is because, unlike Blanche’s peccadilloes, he and Stella are legally wed. (In which case this would render the über-proletarian Mr. Kowalski not only hypocritical, but bourgeois.)

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Streetcar Named Desire

Ryan McKinny and Stacey Tappan.

What motivates Stanley’s unmasking of the troubled, down-on-her-luck Blanche’s masquerade and eventually pushing her over the edge? Of course, under Louisiana’s Napoleonic Code, he has an economic motive when it comes to the lost plantation property. However, McKinney’s skillful, sinewy performance conveys Stanley’s perception of Blanche as a threat to his marriage with her sister.

But without Brando’s beauty and brutal bravado alternating with sensitivity, and in this version of Tennessee’s waltz with its concentration on Blanche’s back story, this opera’s Kowalski is far less appealing and sympathetic, and he goes way too far. No role model of masculinity, he!

Previn’s music uses dissonance to express the clash of personalities, as well as jazzy and bluesy chords to externalize Blanche’s collapsing state of mind. Under the flowing baton of the exuberant conductor Evan Rogister, for the first time this reviewer can recall, the LA Opera Orchestra performs onstage and not in the pit. In his lecture Prof. Hackett noted that New Orleans is very much a character in Williams’ work, but, alas, LA Opera’s simple sets don’t convey a sense of the Big Easy and its fabled French Quarter.

But this is a minor quibble. Brad Dalton deftly directs his ensemble into bringing alive a harrowing work about domestic and sexual abuse and excursion into madness, originally created by one of the stage’s greatest -- and most troubled -- poets. To all those desiring to partake of great opera and drama, get thee by foot, auto, bus, motorcycle -- or streetcar -- Downtown to the Music Center to experience LA Opera’s elysian version of the immortal A Streetcar Named Desire.

Tickets are still available for the final performance of A Streetcar Named Desire on Saturday May 24, at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays March 23 and April 6 at 2:00 p.m. by LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. There will be a pre-performance talk at 6:30 p.m. and Renée Fleming will autograph CDs after the show. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampellco-authored "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book" (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).