Theatrical victory belongs to Blanche in 'Streetcar' opera
Photo Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times
One of the great interests in any revival of the Tennessee Williams classic “A Streetcar Named Desire” is seeing how a production will negotiate the balance of theatrical power between Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski.
There’s no question where things stand in the L.A. Opera presentation of André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which has its final performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday. Renée Fleming’s magnificent Blanche dominates the stage in every scene that she’s in. The tragedy belongs to her character -- and it’s personal, achingly so.
Fleming is quite simply the best Blanche I’ve seen since Elizabeth Marvel brutally assayed the role in Ivo van Hove’s brilliant deconstruction at New York Theater Workshop in 1999.
Some revivals of “Streetcar” accentuate the social context, turning the play into a commentary on modernity’s final erasure of the antebellum South. Others focus on the sexual dynamics, the collision of carnality and flirty repression, male aggression and female wiles.
In Williams' drama, two titanic characters compete for the soul of a third, Stella, Stanley’s pregnant wife and Blanche’s placating sister. Because the combatant roles are so large and dependent to such a great extent on the stature of the actors inhabiting them, the play is ever-shifting in performance.
When Elia Kazan cast Marlon Brando as Stanley in the original Broadway production, he initially feared that the sheer charismatic force of Brando’s acting had tilted the play off its axis. During the New Haven tryout for the Broadway run, Kazan wondered if he had made a mistake in casting this young scene-stealer: “The audiences adored Brando. When he derided Blanche, they responded with approving laughter. Was the play becoming the Marlon Brando Show?”
Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche opposite Brando’s Stanley, grew in power as the play wended its way to New York. Kazan wound up casting Vivien Leigh in the movie version, but his stage experience with “Streetcar” led him to the following insight: “In the end, the play was the event, not the cast, not the director. The play carried us all. In the years to come this masterful work, written out of Tennessee’s most personal experience, asking no favors, no pity, no special allegiance, always moved its audience. There was no way to spoil ‘Streetcar.’”
This opera adaptation -- with a libretto by Philip Littell closely following Williams’ play and Previn’s score seeking always to honor the lyricism of the drama, not overwhelm it -- centers on Blanche’s experience. Her hallucinatory flashbacks of her ill-fated marriage seem to emerge as much from the production as from her mind, so closely are the two expressionistically bound up with each other.
Ryan McKinny’s Stanley has a masculine beauty that is attention-grabbing in its own right. Director Brad Dalton capitalizes on this asset, making sure McKinny’s washboard abs are frequently in view and surrounding Stanley with poker-bodies of similar blue-collar sex appeal.
But both the music and drama are channeled in one direction. The pathos is all Blanche’s, the villainy all Stanley’s, and not even Stacey Tappan’s wonderfully earthy Stella can fool herself into thinking otherwise. The compromises Stella makes, the delusions she goes along with leave her rattled at the end. There is no whitewashing of the reality that Blanche has been raped and is now being dragged to a psychiatric hospital because for life to continue at the Kowalskis this troublemaker must be disposed of
This may sound schematic, but Fleming manifests an interior complexity in her singing and her acting that ensures no drop off in dramatic magnitude. She is that rare opera star whose expressive vocal potential is nearly matched by a gestural eloquence. If this was “The Renée Fleming Show,” it was also a reminder of where the cathartic source of Williams’ drama lies.
The final image of Blanche in white beside a young man recalled her tragic wedding, the innocence that was destroyed and the genteel hope that has now been crushed for good.
However incomplete the interpretation, it was the most moving rendering of Williams' masterpiece since Van Hove's harrowing anti-realistic staging with the aptly named Marvel dominating her production with the same fearless emotional command as the equally marvelous Fleming.
Wenn der Richtige kommt
photo by Monika Forster
Renée Fleming erhellt die Bühnenrumpelkammer
Albert Dohmen in der Rolle des dekadenten Grafen Waldner, der seine Töchter an den Meistbietenden verschachert, singt an diesem Abend präsent, sonor und punktgenau. Sogar Daniel Behles feinem Tenor wächst, wie es die Partie des werthermäßig wildverliebten Leutnant Matteo verlangt, eine heldenhaft sichere Höhe zu. Und noch viel wunderbarer: die Frauen. Selbst eine kleine Nebenrolle, Jane Henschel als Kartenauflegerin, wird gesungen, wie von einer Göttin: klar, deutlich, sinnlich, süß. Erst recht Renée Fleming, deren goldschimmernder Luxus-Sopran unendliche Modulationsmöglichkeiten kennt, sie hat sich neuerdings auch in der Tiefe eine neue Dimension eröffnet.
Wenn diese Arabella von Leid und Wehtun, Liebe und Heimat singt, versteht man nicht jedes Wort, aber man begreift exakt den Sinn. Daneben, ihr ebenbürtig in Schmelz und Ausdruck, die jugendstrahlende Sopranistin Hanna-Elisabeth Müller als unglückliche kleine Schwester, die, vom Opfergeist und Neugierde gleichermaßen beseelt, am Ende die eigne Unschuld zu Markte trägt. Gabriela Beňačková ist eine hinreißend verhuschte Gräfin Adelaide, Daniela Fally eine leidlich koloraturklirrende Fiakermilli. Und im Orchesterzwischenspiel, das vom Ball zurückführt ins Boudoir, lässt sich bewundern, wie vital die Staatskapelle Farbe und Leben sprüht unter Thielemann, wie kristallklar und energisch all die differenzierten Nuancen ausgearbeitet sind, im Fluss des polyphonen Parlando.
Die Inszenierung, ersonnen von Florentine Klepper, ist eine einzige angestrengte Verlegenheitslösung. Da fährt ein heruntergekommenes Fin-de-Siècle-Grandhotel an der Rampe vorbei, Zimmer für Zimmer, wie eine Puppenstube. Die Sänger stehen hier und da darin herum, sie gehen durch sieben Türen und kommen nirgendwo an. Dazu kommen dumme Fingerzeige, zumal im Ball-Akt: maskierte Doubles, ein Tanzbär, ein Kentaur, ein abstürzender Lift. Kaum aber tritt Renée Fleming auf, antikisch frisiert wie Pallas Athene; kaum beginnt sie zu singen, umkräuselt vom liebenden Ton der Oboe - schon entsteht eine eigene Aura, und die vollgestellte Bühnenrumpelkammer weitet sich zu einem Lebensraum. Alle Regie-Kinkerlitzchen verblassen. Der hellste, tröstlichste Sopranhimmel tut sich auf, wenn Müller mit Fleming gemeinsam singt, das berühmte Schwestern-Duett, dieser Himmel reicht weit über den Horizont.
A memorable night of singing with Fleming and Kaufmann at Lyric Opera
Okay, so technically Lyric Opera of Chicago’s concert Wednesday night didn’t mark the end of the company’s season. La Clemenza di Tito runs through Sunday, there is an Itzhak Perlman recital next month and five thousand performances of The Sound of Music in April and May.
But for most Chicago operagoers, Wednesday’s subscriber appreciation concert with Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann wrapped the company’s 59th season in memorable fashion with a gala concert that not only provided a model of its kind, but also served up one of the finest vocal events of the season.
This was the first joint concert appearance by Fleming and Kaufmann. (Kaufmann made his American debut at Lyric in 2001 as Cassio in Otello with Fleming as Desdemona, and sang the Italian Tenor with Fleming’s Marschallin in Rosenkavalier in Baden-Baden in their only previous collaborations.) Yet such was the chemistry and combustible dramatic frisson of the two charismatic stars that it was hard to believe this was their first concert together. It surely won’t be their last.
Both artists were at the top of their game vocally—and the fact that they make a ridiculously handsome couple didn’t hurt either. Fleming looked ravishing in two Vivienne Westwood gowns and Kaufmann’s matinee-idol looks and nice-guy persona elicited a couple Beatles-like outbursts from his less inhibited fans. (60 Minutes was there to record the event for a future Kaufmann profile as well.)
The German tenor’s voice is distinctive—dark and baritonal in color yet with daunting power and seemingly effortless high notes. His rendition of Don Jose’s Flower Song from Carmen was musing and introspective, the top B flat rendered with a feather-light pianissimo (spoilt unfortunately by a loud hacking cough from a woman in the audience who should have stayed home). Kaufmann’s recent triumph in Werther at the Met was represented with “Pourquoi me reveiller,” and one can go a long time without hearing such idiomatic Massenet, the tenor singing an elegant and refined account with powerful top notes.
Best of all was Don Alvaro’s Act 3 Romanza (“O tu che in seno agli angeli”) from La forza del destino. Preceded by a gorgeous atmospheric clarinet solo by Charlene Zimmerman, Kaufmann’s performance was magnificent—-brooding and interior in his recitative, the aria delivered with searing dramatic point and true Verdian weight. Can we please have this gifted artist back in a staged production in Chicago as soon as possible?
Fleming was equally compelling in her solo items, delivering some of her finest singing in Chicago of recent years. Even now nobody does sad like the glamorous soprano and her spell-binding rendering of Refice’s Ombra di nube was heart-breaking, beautifully shaded and deeply felt. Fleming also showed what genuine opera acting is about in a vividly characterized account of Manon’s “Adieu, notre petite table” illuminating every phrase with detailed nuance and emotional commitment.
The soprano’s Danny Boy was the sole clinker of the evening—a nice post-St. Patrick’s Day offering for the Irish in the audience yet rather over-interpreted Wednesday and unaided by a decidedly schmaltzy arrangement.
But it was the duetted items that made this evening memorable, as much for the dramatic sparks created by the two artists as for their gleaming vocalism. In the Act 3 duet from Faust, the acting of Fleming and Kaufmann made sets and costumes irrelevant, segueing from coy and awkward beginnings to increased ardor, with magical mezzo-voce singing from Kaufmann and thrilling top notes from both.
A tender and expressive performance of the love duet from Otello (“Gia nella notte densa) showed the singers’ close rapport. The duet displayed Fleming’s sensitivity and seasoned expertise in the role but also shows Kaufmann as a fine Otello in the making, with his heroic tone and easy top notes.
The St. Sulpice scene from Massenet’s Manon made a well-judged if unlikely finale (who is going to take holy orders when Renée Fleming is begging you to run away with her?). With fizzing dramatic involvement, the scene was riveting—Kaufmann’s Des Grieux veering from awkward halfhearted rejection of Manon to ultimate careless capitulation, and Fleming’s Manon insinuating her dubious former lover with feminine wiles and rejoicing in her victory.
The audience clearly knew they were experiencing a genuinely special night and the tumultuous ovations brought the two singers out for a pair of encores.
Lehar’s Merry Widow Waltz duet was a somewhat predictable choice, taken slowly yet with feeling and exhilarating final top notes by both. More surprising and welcome was “Gluck, das mir verblieb” from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in the original duet version, hushed and beautifully sung.
Sir Andrew Davis led the Lyric Opera Orchestra in lively orchestral sweetmeats by Saint-Saens, Verdi and Tippet in between the vocal items. Except for one rude wind blat near the end of the evening, the ensemble’s support under their ebullient music director was as refined and sleek as the vocalism of the evening’s two stars. The burnished, resplendent playing of the cello section, led by principal Walter Preucil, was especially notable.
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