A Streetcar Named Desire

Local Arts Reviews

A Streetcar Named Desire: Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Bass Concert Hall, January 20

The woman from Mississippi walks down the unfamiliar New Orleans street and sees dingy doorways crowded with sweaty men, their bodies bathed in the molten gold of sunset, their wolfish eyes all on her. In her sister's tiny French Quarter flat, she speaks of funerals back home in Mississippi, and the room transforms into a great Gothic mansion, inhabited by a corpselike woman in white bedclothes and spectral mourners in black, carrying candles. She tells a man she is dating about her first marriage, which ended in her husband's suicide, and the young man appears at her side, to be rejected by her once again.

These are the visions of Blanche Dubois, faded flower of the South, as her life -- and mind -- fall to pieces in A Streetcar Named Desire. And we shared them with her in Austin Lyric Opera's production of the opera of that name, adapted from the Tennessee Williams play by composer Andre Previn and librettist Philip Littell. Stage director Brad Dalton and his design team built the show around Blanche's point of view, translating her mental state -- distorted, persecuted, exaggerated, haunted by a past she cannot turn loose of -- into literal elements of the setting. Scenic designer Michael Yeargen constructed a corridor from an Expressionist nightmare: all unnatural angles, the walls studded with identical doors and painted with what looked to be storm clouds or billows of smoke, identical doors receding back to a blank rectangle saturated with sumptuous colored light. When slathered in garish red light by designer David Nancarrow, it looked like the hotel of the damned. As Blanche seeks the sympathy of her sister Stella, deflects the suspicions of Stella's aggressive husband Stanley, and pursues what could be her final chance at redemption through a romance with Stanley's pal Mitch, figures join her in the space: Stella and Stanley's neighbors eyeing her, dead relatives, her husband who killed himself.

The staging concept, though a radical departure from the naturalism of the original 1998 San Francisco Opera production, feels like a logical outgrowth of the opera's focus. In Previn's hands, Streetcar is Blanche's tragedy. For better or worse (depending on how you see the play), Previn puts Blanche front and center, keeping her onstage almost constantly, giving her the bulk of the music, favoring her with the work's most melodic and transcendent aria, Blanche's lyrical vision of her final days and death at sea. And his overall approach to the score -- dissonant, agitated, at times jangling, sharp with tempestuous bursts of contrasting orchestration or melody -- feels reflective of an unsettled mind (certainly in ALO's version, with conductor Peter Bay and his orchestra boldly stalking and crisply serving up the score's spiky sounds). It's almost as if we're hearing the story through Blanche's head.

That puts a substantial burden of the shoulders of any artist taking on the role of Blanche on, but you wouldn't have known it by Susannah Glanville's heroic reading. Her Blanche was a creature of calculated artifice, aiming to project that ever-elusive magic that she holds so dear. She never just stood; she posed, say, her weight on one leg so she could cock the other and turn her foot just so, giving the impression of a woman putting herself on display in a museum. Her second act seduction of the young man collecting for the paper was genuinely disturbing, with her coquettish behavior occasionally giving way to flashes of predatory manipulation. Glanville exuded the character's desperation so convincingly that though most of us in the audience could not see the singer's eyes, we could sense them shifting from side to side, searching for the bottle which provides Blanche her only physical release or to the walls, for some escape from the unforgiving gaze of Stanley.

In sharp contrast to Glanville's Blanche was her sister, a down-to-earth Suzanne Ramo, whose face took on a golden glow when talking about her husband; her clear pride in and affection for Stanley was most alluringly conveyed at the end of Act One, when after a reconciliation with Stanley, Ramo took a sinuous, jazzy melodic line and imbued it with sensuality and tenderness. The object of her affections, as played by tall, rangy Teddy Tahu Rhodes, was a tower of swagger, a cocky, rough-hewn guy's guy whose disdain for his high-flown, florid sister-in-law grows into a rancor as all-consuming as Ahab's for the white whale; his dark glare revealed a single-minded desire to bring Blanche down. Stanley's rape of her has rarely seemed so cruelly inevitable.

After that chilling act, after Blanche has gone over the edge, Previn gives her an aria that is unexpectedly and unabashedly melodic. After three hours of stark, discordant sound, it is a stunning shift, and structurally it plays off and pulls together all that has come before. It's a gutsy strategy, and some will say it doesn't work. But it reveals an adventurous spirit, a thoughtfulness, and an unwavering commitment to something new and different. The same can be said for Austin Lyric Opera and its groundbreaking production of Streetcar. They take great risks in the service of the work and hold nothing back. Here it has resulted in an achievement of grand proportions: a vision of madness from the inside.

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A Streetcar Named Desire, Austin Lyric Opera, Tennessee Williams, Andre Previn, Brad Dalton, Susannah Glanville, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Suzanne Ramo

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