Monday, April 18, 2016

Opera San Jose's A Streetcar Named Desire

Matthew Hanscom as Stanley, Kirk Dougherty (being held back) as Mitch. Photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire
April 17, 2016

A couple decades ago, I saw a production of Beaumarchais’ play The Marriage of Figaro, and noticed that very little was lost in Mozart and Da Ponte’s adaptation to opera. The reason? Recitative. A chord here, a chord there, lots of words rapidly sung – very efficient. I began to wonder why some modern opera composer didn’t use the same device, to produce a work that was more dramatically realistic.

Also a couple decades ago, San Francisco Opera commissioned an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and ran into a snag: the Williams family agreed to the project, but only if the text of the original play was left largely intact. Well! There’s a problem. Anybody who’s seen a Williams play knows there’s a lot of talking.

Ariana Strahl as Blanche
I was there for the premiere run in September 1998, featuring Renee Fleming as Blanche Dubois, and although I enjoyed it, I lacked the greater musical context to identify what had just happened. In Andre Previn, SFO hired a four-time Academy Award-winning film composer. In creating the opera, he and librettist Philip Littell wrote a score that, while not exactly based on recitative, delivered dialogues accompanied in the same manner as spoken dialogues in films.

The work also signalled a shift in operatic thinking. After years of dramatically criminal sonic cycling musical-theory operas from John Adams and Philip Glass, the opera world decided to put music back into the service of drama. I’d put the official starting point at Jake Heggie’s 2000 Dead Man Walking (also produced by SFO), and would include works like the 2008 Stewart Wallace/Amy Tan Bonesetter’s Daughter and the 2011 Christopher Theofanadis 9/11 opera Heart of a Soldier.

All this musicological connectivity was brought to mind by Opera San Jose’s production, which employs some very effective revisions put in place by the original creators. The most obvious is placing the orchestra at the back of the stage, which brings the action to a point over the closed orchestra pit. This, along with the more intimate setting of the California Theatre, brings an immediacy that was missing from that 1998 premiere. They also cut down the size of the orchestra, which better matches the feel of Williams’ play.

Previn’s score comes across as an interesting but well-behaved houseguest, assisting the action without overwhelming it, dabbling in illustrative effects (a poured drink accompanied by a burbling clarinet) and growing in force when the story calls for it (some startling percussion, for instance, as Blanche tells the story of her husband’s death). As a result, the vocal aspect of the score is free to follow the natural flow of the dialogue, which must have pleased the Williams clan quite a bit.

The casting is superb. Soprano Ariana Strahl possesses a wide-ranging voice that delivers Blanche’s more tender moments – like the Carlisle Floyd-like “Soft People” – but can also throw lightning bolts when needed, as in the final line (“One light!”) in her memory of a gay friend’s suicide. She matches this in the acting department, bringing as layered and nuanced a Blanche as I’ve ever seen, singing or non-singing. Her account of the opera’s best-known set piece, “I want magic!,” is tender and gorgeous.

Stacey Tappan as Stella
Soprano Stacey Tappan’s Stella had her tender moments, as well, particularly an Act I account of Stanley’s romantic homecomings and the wordless song that Stella uses to signal that she’s just had great sex (Blanche uses the same device to indicate that she’s tricked Mitch into marrying her). Tappan does a terrific job of portraying Stella’s sensuality and sly wit.

Tenor Kirk Dougherty gives Mitch a good balance of awkwardness and moral strength. When he drags Blanche under the bare light bulb, it’s a little terrifying, in the sense that a truly good-seeming character has apparently gone over the edge. His aria “When you lose the one you love” is a touching and artful bit of wooing, and his comic moves are priceless.

Baritone Matthew Hanscom’s performance as Stanley is so effective that you have to resist the impulse to climb onto the stage and punch him. At first, you can almost see his side (something Williams does for all his characters), since Blanche is trouble and she is lying, but he takes too much obnoxious pleasure in his Schadenfreude. Hanscom’s rich baritone is a powerful weapon, providing Stanley with a fearsome authority and a powerful sexuality. He can even be a little touching, as in the final-act “Wasn’t it all okay?” As for The Scene, he taps into that Brando edginess quite well, helped by Previn’s wise decision to keep “Stella!” as a non-musical scream.

Kirk Dougherty as Mitch, Ariana Strahl as Blanche
Director Brad Dalton’s staging of The Scene was excellent, placing neighbor-lady Eunice (Cabiria Jacobsen) upstage so Stanley’s primal reaction is right up front, the both of them bathed in a stripe of stark light (lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert). Another good staging was the final scene, which left Blanche in a fetal position on the floor as chaos erupted all around her. The rape scene, on the other hand, was an epic failure, featuring the baritone planking over the soprano as the shirtless Chippendale supers gathered around to flex their back muscles. It would be better to leave the rape to the imagination (and Previn’s frantic interlude), or to leave the stage dark and have the singers wrestle around a bit. This high-concept, in-between stuff just doesn’t work.

Conductor Ming Luke did a superb job of working with his back to the singers, and the orchestra played smoothly throughout, particularly with Previn’s frequent use of jazz glissandos to denote sexuality. The constant use of the sax equals sex principle, however, is painfully on the nose (no offense to the excellent sax player Mark Brandenburg).

Through May 1, California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose. $51-$151, 408/437-4450,

Random notes:
--I like the progress that OSJ has made in the use of actual beverages onstage. For years, they mimed their drinking, and it drove me nuts. Hell, Stanley even sprays himself with a beer.
--Strahl’s portrayal of Blanche in her more pretentious moments reminded me a lot of Diane Chambers, played by Shelley Long in Cheers.
--Other seemingly unadaptable works? How about Verdi’s Shakespeare Triumvirate, with Otello and Falstaff (librettist Boito) and Macbeth (Piave).

Michael J. Vaughn is a long-time opera critic and author of 18 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice.