Previn’s ‘Streetcar’ simmers with desire

Stanley (Gregory Gerbrandt) Kowalski confronts Blanche DuBois in Opera Company of Middlebury’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Photo by Max Kraus)

MIDDLEBURY – André Previn’s music in his opera “A Streetcar Named Desire” only heightens the raw emotional power of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece – as it supports the uncut, unadulterated original script with brilliantly evocative music. Opera Company of Middlebury opened a compelling and exciting performance of Previn’s 1998 opera at Town Hall Theater Friday. Its mix of theater and opera created an unusually rich and rewarding opera experience. Williams’ iconic play tells of the faded southern belle Blanche Dubois, forced by circumstances to move in with her sister Stella in her squalid New Orleans apartment. Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski, a macho working class bloke, immediately sees the sophisticated Blanche as a threat to his domain. Fighting back, he discovers and reveals the tawdry truth about his seemingly ladylike sister-in-law. It’s as raw and psychologically potent a play ever written – making the poor Blanche DuBois its unsung heroine. Previn’s opera doesn’t change a word – as required by the Williams estate – but underscores the playwright’s characters and drama. His brilliant orchestra score while very thorny is essentially tonal, and illuminates both the characters and their world with rich and strident colors reminiscent of Richard Strauss’ most dramatic operas. Other than the few actual arias, Previn’s vocal lines are more of an extension of the orchestral score. In the first two acts, the musical drama simmers rather than strikes out, but in the third and final, it erupts into a denouement worthy of Puccini. But in fact it is the anticlimax that is most deeply affecting. In staging the opera, Douglas Anderson, Opera Company of Middlebury’s artistic director – uncharacteristically and fortuitously – didn’t stray from the Williams (or the Previn). Much of the credit for the success of the production also goes to conductor Michael Sakir and the crackerjack 29-piece Vermont orchestra who realized the amazingly rich score with precision and character. Soprano Meredith Lustig was a compelling and sympathetic Blanche, delivering her coloratura lines with an affecting expressiveness. Although her acting was a bit facile in the beginning, Lustig eventually inhabited this deeply layered character. In Lustig’s hands, Blanche’s inappropriate attraction to the young newspaper collector (Cameron Steinmetz) was particularly subtle and disconcerting, and the character’s eventual heroic downward spiral heart wrenching. Stanley was given a chest-thumping macho performance, vocally and theatrically, by the charismatic baritone Gregory Gerbrandt. Deep vocal and personal sensitivity marked tenor James Flora as Mitch, Blanche’s would-be suitor. Soprano Cree Carrico brilliantly revealed Stella’s mixed and troubled emotions. While this is not an opera that showcases voices traditionally, there wasn’t a weak member vocally of the eight-singer cast. The physical staging beautifully effectively creates a working class French Quarter apartment, but only suggests so that the large orchestra can be glimpsed behind. Jeffrey Salzberg’s creative lighting added to the drama, often subtly accenting situations, as did Debra Anderson’s period costumes. Most of Friday’s opening night audience didn’t know what to expect – this is the company’s first foray into contemporary opera – but ended up responding enthusiastically to what can only be called a huge success for Opera Company of Middlebury.   Opera Company of Middlebury The Opera Company of Middlebury presents André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire, fully staged with orchestra, June 1-9 at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. June 1, 7 and 9, and 2 p.m. June 3. Tickets are $55-$80; call 802-382-9222, or go online to www.townhalltheater.org. For information, visit http://ocmvermont.org.

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