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A Streetcar Named Desire.

Stephen Sondheim may have been right after all. Tennessee Williams's haunting 1947 tragedy, A Streetcar Named Desire, does not require conversion to opera because it is operatic already. Sondheim rejected the offer, and Leonard Bernstein turned down the project too. None of this deterred Andre Previn, who at the adanced age of 69 embarked on an opera career in September at the San Francisco Opera. The annals are strewn with far worse first operas -- and luxurious casting and Previn's presence in the pit for the premiere at the War Memorial Opera House somewhat compensated for the score's shortcomings -- but Williams's muse, for the most part, has resisted the lure of song. Blanche DuBois may find her fantasy world crashing around her, but she need never depend on the kindness of operaphiles.

Not that Williams's dark music has been completely ignored. Librettist Philip Littell condensed this parable of the nourishing power of illusion with deftness, and his additions -- an aria for Blanche's suitor, Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey), and an expansion of the part of the symbolic flower seller -- can be excised in a revision. The problem is that the multitalented Previn has not mined his own experience. Despite the New Orleans setting, we might as well have been in New Rochelle for all the jazz flavor that Previn., a gifted jazz pianist, has allowed to seep into the score. And the manipulation and transformation of motives that one might expect from a veteran film composer went for naught here.

Previn's derivative style served him only fitfully. Blanche rises to moments of eloquence as she descends into madness after the rape by Stanley Kowalski, but ideas are rarely developed, and Previn poorly avails himself of the ensemble opportunities of the operatic form. The effect is pretty but transitory, and the harmonies are so conservative that the work might have been composed in 1928 rather than 1998.

Yet the San Francisco Opera gave the work the gala treatment. Soprano Rende Fleming offered an unremittingly intense Blanche (the Old South accent has to go, however). Baritone Rodney Gilfry exuded testosterone as her nemesis, Stanley (if only his larynx had been as buffed as his pectorals). And soprano Elizabeth Futral made a stunning debut as Blanche's sister, Stella, whose sexual attraction for Stanley is vividly etched.

A Streetcar Named Desire has barely begun its journey. Companies in America and Europe will produce it. San Diego Opera has booked the show for 2000, and the Welsh National Opera is in negotiations for its own production. Deutsche Grammophon recorded the performance live for commercial release, and PBS will air the tape of Colin Graham's production on Great Performances in December. The end of the line is not yet in sight.

Ulrich is the dance and classical-music critic for the San Francisco Examiner.
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Title Annotation:War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
Author:Ulrich, Allan
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Opera Review
Date:Oct 27, 1998
Words:465
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