Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable
For the second performance of Renée Fleming‘s “Perspectives” performances at Carnegie Hall she chose a semi-staged version of André Previn‘s A Streetcar Named Desire, with the “People’s Diva” herself in the iconic role of the unstable Blanche DuBois. Bravo to her for choosing an opera based on an American subject matter that had yet to be presented in NYC! Bravo to her for arriving at a level of celestial operatic stardom that allows her to cherry pick all manner of repertoire for her own series of concerts presented at Carnegie Hall!
Although she deserves credit for being adventurous in her programming and for singing material that is off the beaten path, she also had to shoulder about 40% of the blame for last night’s performance of the work being alternately tedious, irritating and downright dull. (I’ll grant 10% to the space, Patrick Summers and his frequently too loud orchestra, while the remaining 50% lies squarely at the feet of Mr. Previn.)
Who doesn’t know the story of faded, jaded Blanche’s spiral into psychological disarray, complete with her battered housewife/love-struck sister Stella, the memory of Belle Reve and her abusive (and gorgeous) husband Stanley Kowalski? Well, since you ask, Ms. Weave didn’t. So she hopped over to the Library for the Performing Arts and rented the classic 1951 film on DVD.
What a finger-licking, kitschy star turns for Vivian Leigh and what a legendary performance from Marlon Brando as the hunky, fiendish and perceptive villain. I was ready for some first class melodrama last night, with Fleming at the helm. (Say what you will about the woman, but she can crank up the ham when you need her to, and sometimes even when you don’t.)
The set was minimal and the staging was relatively straightforward. Props were rearranged between scenes while the music continued by Stan’s shirt-deprived, muscular friends. Yet the staging didn’t light fires underneath the characters, particularly Blanche’s.
As one of the American theater’s most promient examples of the manipulative, mendacious, alcoholic, depressive sexual predator, Fleming meandered politely about as though she were wary of stealing focus from the other singers.
The soprano has aged enviably well, but standing around in pretty dresses and letting her NYC fans see how good she looks at 54 doesn’t add up to a performance. She did not deliver the dramatic goods for the part by a long shot.
Vocally, too, it was hit or miss night for her. The voice was lacking in firmness, and she frequently employed her infamous cooing and scooping to avoid sinking into a line and doing some honest singing. She did conjure up some nice floated tones in two of Blanche’s cheesy arias, “I want magic” and “I can smell the sea air,” but in the recit-ish sections in her middle voice—about 75% of her lines—she was quite difficult to hear.
The other singers fared a little better, with the finest work of the night from Susanna Phillips in a surprisingly honest reading of Blanche’s sister Stella. Her voice has a nice core to it, and her disturbingly premature return to Stan following his drunken rampage for make-up sex at the end of Act I was the only genuinely affecting moment of the evening. When she purred out a lick accompanied by pizzacato cello in her post-coital haze while Blanche implored her to leave him I believed that she’d just had the sex of her life and didn’t give a damn if she had to get knocked around a bit to get it.
Anthony Dean’s Griffey seemed to be enjoying himself as Blanche’s almost lover Mitch. He brought a clear tone and a loveably dopey persona to the role. Teddy Tahu Rhodes has a nice baritone and a nice torso, though I found his characterization to be somewhat nondescript. Victoria Livengood stepped in for an indisposed Jane Bunnell in the role of Eunice with a nice ripe mezzo and was appropriately matronly and imposing. Dominic Armstrong and Andrew Bidlack gave fine support as Steve and the Young Collector.
But the real problems were the orchestra and that wretched score. With the orchestra on the stage behind the singers, all the singers moments of inaudibility. Besides balance problems, Patrick Summers did a decent job staying with the singers and the orchestra played respectably. Or at least I think the orchestra play respectably; the score doesn’t make particularly efficient use of the ensemble.
It seems that in the quest for contemporary composers to avoid boring little things like melodies that are generous to the voice, they often resort to silly motives and corny harmonies that are simultaneously unremarkable and difficult to sing over.
Previn’s abrasive “choo choo” train motive is dense and permeates the work. His setting of the text on odd leaps and rhythms makes it next to impossible to hear many of the words. The handful of positive audience reactions were spurred by subtitles of the lines that were lifted from the original play. .
Maybe Carnegie is simply too big for the intimate subject matter of the play, or maybe this just isn’t a very good opera. As time goes by and Fleming is showing less and less of the decadent vocal luster of her prime, it’s becoming more apparent that, like Maria Stuarda, this opera doesn’t hold up without a major star at the reigns.