Cher Public

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!

And yet…

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.

  • immanuelgilen

    I left after the first act -- I have to agree Mr Previn’s score was the main culprit in my eyes as well.

    Also, little pet peeve, but it would be a star at the “reins”, without the g.

    • Ethan

      The problem with this opera began even before Previn started composing, because Williams’ executor, Maria St. Just, refused to allow the Streetcar script to be adapted into a libretto. So everyone--composer, singers, creative staff--is forced to try to enliven an inert text. Operas are not plays with music added. Yes, it worked with Pelleas et Melisande, because it’s such a weird play in the first place, almost an opera libretto in itself. But to make a play into an opera, the authors must first turn the continuity into parole sceniche, and St. Just wouldn’t let them.

  • armerjacquino

    Thanks for this- a clear-eyed appraisal of a flawed opera (and singer?) which manages to criticise without damning.

    Just one caveat- kitschy? I think that film still hits like a truck.

    • They’re kitschy star turns only because they have endured sixty years of bad imitation from actors who couldn’t invent such edgy glamour as Vivien and Marlon created if their lives depended on it.

      I doubt Verdi or Gershwin could have added anything musically to this thrilling, multi-layered American Southern dream of a play; how Previn (or anyone else) imagined being able to play in that sandlot is a mystery. He is not worthy; he is a hack. Like most American opera, this is tedious melody-starved arioso hoping to hitch some appeal from singers’ appeal and the original script. What a waste of useful grant money.

      • I think the “s” on “turns” is a typo and the “kitschy star turn” is saved only for Leigh. And I can’t agree. Leigh’s performance is as powerful as Brando’s (though obviously completely different in style). For me, Leigh’s performance has nothing to do with camp or kitsch or anything one enjoys because it’s fun or “delicious”.

        • La Valkyrietta

          One does read a lot of weird opinions, but Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of Blanche kitschy? Give me a break!

      • Niel Rishoi

        The only composer I can think of who would have done justice to the piece is Carlisle Floyd.

        • ianw2

          I’d prefer Salonen, but with a really good librettist who would have nerves of steel to take a scalpel to the original text.

          • Do you mean Aulis Sallinen? Esa-Pekka Salonen, to my knowledge, has never composed an opera and the music of his I’ve heard compares, to my mind, unfavorably with Rautavaara’s.

          • ianw2

            No, I meant Salonen. I’ve recently been obsessively listening to Nyx.

  • Hippolyte

    “with the “People’s Diva” herself in the iconic roll of the unstable Blanche DuBois.”

    I suspect you meant “role” but then again perhaps it was as in “roll of the dice.”

  • bergbag

    It looked majorly bad.

  • papopera

    Why does Fleming boost that lousy tonitruous score ?

  • javier

    i think this opera starts very strong, but as with most american operas there is too much “talking” and not enough singing. still, i think it is entertaining.

    this review doesn’t say anything about how fleming sounded compared to her sf opera role debut back in 1998. i will have to wait to hear it myself from chicago in a few weeks to learn if she can still sing her big arias “i want magic” and “i can smell the sea air” well these days.

  • MontyNostry

    Well, I didn’t know till today (thank you, Wikipedia) that Blanche DuBois hails from Laurel, Mississippi, birthplace of the blessed Leontyne.

  • Satisfied

    Um…this is…torso pictures are REQUIRED with this review!


  • Krunoslav

    “Marlon Brando as a volatile, smoldering Stanley Kowalski, giving what may be the greatest performance by an actor in the history of cinema.”

    Isn’t he forgetting Jon Hall in COBRA WOMAN--and the total oeuvre of Turhan Bey?

    • La Valkyrietta

      How about Humphrey Bogart in ‘The African Queen’?

  • Nerva Nelli

    Tallulah Bankhead is not just one of opera’s most celebrated sopranos, but perhaps its most convincing actress. A consummate artist, her one and only role when she stands in the spotlight is to breathe so much life into the opera’s main character that audiences lose themselves in her unforgettable performances. That is the passion of Tallulah Bankhead.

      • OMG, this is priceless! I must tweet it…

      • phoenix

        Hmmmm … I suspected there was something pertinent hidden underneath that Weave when I saw the headliner to this thread.

      • kennedet

        I might be thought old-fashioned but that advice given by Ms. Bankhead is dangerous, if taken seriously. The exercise she gave was just one of the many techniques taught in an acting class….not the only one needed to be an actor. No one in their right mind would question Ms. Bankhead’s fame and talent as an actress but if acting were that easy why would any aspiring actor go through the training required to become a professional actor. She is obviously the exception to the rule.

        • It is to be hoped that aspring thespians will take with a grain of salt technical advice deriving from a source entitled “Co-Star, the Record Acting Game.”

  • kennedet

    I’ll check it out. I’ve never heard of it.Thanks