16 July 2014

Merola rides a Streetcar Named Desire

Last Saturday I was at the second of the two Merola Opera performances of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, in a reduced orchestration prepared by Peter Grunberg. The libretto by Philip Littell is based of course on the famous play by Tennessee Williams. This was the first revival of the work since its world premiere here in 1998. I saw those original performances and liked them, but despite the care taken and the overall excellence of Saturday's performance, the opera itself seems more problematic than ever.

There is a single-unit set used for all three acts (Steven Kemp did the scenic design). The street, the stairs, the neighbors above, the Kowalski's two-room apartment, are all jammed together, giving an effective sense of poverty and claustrophobic quarters and confusion verging on chaos and also vitality. The costumes by Kristi Johnson and the lighting by Eric Watkins were equally thoughtful and appropriate. The pace and energy of the orchestra, conducted by Mark Morash, was undimmed for the entire length of the show. The direction by Jose Maria Condemi had numerous subtle, excellent touches, such as the business-like way Blanche nods (setting aside her airs and affectations) during one of her exchanges with Stanley; or the look of incredulity and barely hidden pleasure on the face of the young paperboy when he realizes Blanche is trying to seduce him; or the way the essentially innocent Mitch sadly and pointlessly smoothes his hair and adjusts his shirt during Blanche's final exit. . . .

And the singers were all strong and convincing, from the smaller roles (Alexander Elliott as the asylum doctor and Amanda Woodbury as the nurse, Shirin Eskandani as the Mexican woman selling flores por los Muertos, Mingjie Lei as the paperboy, Eliza Bonet and Benjamin Werley as Eunice and Steve Hubbell, the upstairs neighbors) to the four leads: Casey Candebat as dreamy, naive Mitch; Adelaide Boedecker as an appealing, warm Stella; Thomas Gunther, who succeeded in creating a Stanley (crude, tough, and smart) that stood on his own without constantly evoking or imitating his famous predecessors; and Julie Adams, tireless in the exhausting, many-layered role of fragile, deceptive, destructive Blanche, floating beautiful high notes at the end as surely as she had done all through the preceding hours. Clearly it was not the fault of singers, orchestra, director, or designers if I still came away not quite convinced that the opera itself was a good idea. I think Streetcar is a much stronger opera than some of the other recent San Francisco premieres (such as The Bonesetter's Daughter, Heart of a Soldier, and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene). And yet, and yet. . . .

Like Ibsen, Williams creates a world of surface "realism" that can seem realistic to the point of sordid, but which contains, just below that surface, a stronger, sustaining world of myth and poetry. The play, one of the few reliable classics of the American theater, seems so obviously meant for music that you have to wonder if perhaps that is an impulse best resisted -- that it seems so obviously meant for music because the words and actions already contain all the music the play really needs. For every moment in which the score crystallizes or releases something in the dramatic situation (Stella's cat-who-just-got-the-cream vocalise the morning after she and Stanley have make-up sex; Blanche's impassioned cries "a light had gone out" when she finishes the agonizing story of her husband's suicide; Blanche's floating, ethereal repetition of "whoever you are" as she makes her final exit, helped by the asylum doctor and nurse) there are whole scenes in which the music slows the action and constricts the performers' possible interpretations. And though I enjoyed Previn's bluesy-woozy music, there are too many moments when its sexy-time woo-wooooo sounds conventional and cheesy.

The familiarity of the play (particularly in the form of the 1951 film with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando), not just in general plot terms but down to specific lines and moments that have entered the common currency of American cultural reference, also works against the opera. My recollection from the time of the premiere is that the Williams estate kept very strict control over what changes could be made to the play. As a result, every single moment happens as expected, there are no surprises (and, as noted above, the score frequently keeps the performers from interpretations that might surprise us). I don't think it's an accident that Stanley shouting "Stella! Stella!" did not make much effect Saturday (as it did not in the premiere performances) -- it's no criticism of Thomas Gunther, who as I said gave us a Stanley of his own, if he could not erase (as the excellent Rod Gilfry during the premiere could not erase) the iconic memory of Marlon Brando, his shirt torn and drenched, howling in the street. Previn's music for the moment is practically recessive, as if he knew it had to be included but he couldn't quite figure out what to do with it. At least there was an attempt to turn Blanche's "I don't want realism, I want magic!" into an aria, and the challenge of "Whoever you are -- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" was brilliantly handled by emphasizing the "whoever you are" part rather than "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," which sadly has become almost a camp line. But there aren't enough moments of such brilliance.

There's also the matter of the run time, which is three-and-a-half hours. This is not long enough to be an event (a la Einstein on the Beach, Les Troyens, St Francois d'Assise, or almost anything by Wagner), and it's not short enough to fit in with the way we live now. Americans notoriously are forced to spend too many hours at work, and often have long unpleasant commutes. A three-and-a-half hour performance is not going to fit easily into most schedules. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but I think it is a real thing. I've been noticing for several years now that if a theatrical performance is anything approaching or over three hours then the run-time generally gets commented on in reviews. The occasional response to these comments is to sneer at the Philistines who are only concerned about the last train back to the suburbs (it's always the suburbs). But for most people, a three-and-a-half hour performance is automatically a non-starter.

And I think this is one reason for the growing number of "family" presentations of familiar operas: it's a respectable way of cutting classic works whose run-times were designed for a different era. People have to live their lives in a daily detail way, and that often means worrying about things like when the last train leaves. And Philistinism doesn't even need to enter into it -- given the digital cornucopia now available so easily to us, you could spend that three-and-a-half hours watching The Passion of Joan of Arc and Cries and Whispers, and have time left over to make popcorn and read some Baudelaire. Throw in the travel time to and from the theater, and you've got hours available for cultural Crazy Town. Saying a work is too long is always a way of criticizing some other failing, and I can't really say Previn's score is worth the time it takes.

The Merola Program motto is "the future of opera." Based on Saturday, I'd say that as far as design and performance go, the future of opera looks very bright. But based on the opera itself as an example of new repertory, I'd say it's cloudy with a chance of drought. Merola's forthcoming Don Giovanni plays 31 July and 2 August (more information here), and if the cast is as strong as Streetcar's it will be well worth checking out.

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