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11 Dec 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire at Opera Australia

Musically, Australia looks to Britain and Europe, especially for its operatic diet and America’s considerable operatic output has been overlooked.

André Previn: A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanche DuBois: Yvonne Kenny; Stella Kowalski: Antoinette Halloran; Stanley Kowalski: Teddy Tahu Rhodes; Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell: Stuart Skelton; Eunice Hubble: Dominica Matthews; Steve Hubble: Andrew Brunsdon; A Young Collector: Stephen Smith; A Mexican Woman: Jacqueline Dark. Conductor: Tom Woods; Director: Bruce Beresford; Set & Costume Designer: John Stoddart. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. December 2, 5 & 12 2009.Blanche DuBois:

Above: Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois and Stuart Skelton as Mitchell

All photos by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia


Despite the sensational impact Menotti’s The Consul had when it premiered in Australia in 1953 — making a star out of Marie Collier — it was revived professionally only once more in 1985. Even Menotti’s perennial Christmas favourite Amahl and the Night Visitors has had few professional productions. Consequently the 2007 production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire was a significant event.

Previn has composed vocal music and music theatre often during his long career but for his first, fully-fledged opera, he has approached the task from an area he knows better than most other opera composers. When the work premiered in 1998 commentators considered the music and approach, with its many jazz references, to be more akin to cinema in style and form. Listening to the way Previn’s score fits the stage action and libretto it is indeed very cinematic and works in the same way a skilled screen composer (which Previn is) underscores action, giving the visuals a musically dramatic undercurrent equal to the emotional content of the scene. Musically it is very approachable, with overtones of Copland, Barber, Menotti, Britten and Previn’s very knowledgeable synthesis of American jazz in its make up but never as derivative as some commentators would make it out to be. Very soon one becomes accustomed to the music and style and it appears that vocal lines are created out of the musical undercurrent rather accompanied by it. Not that Previn does not create arias per se. There are many solo moments or aria and arioso, the earliest being when Stella (Antoinette Halloran) describes to the astonished Blance (Yvonne Kenny) her unconditional love for the brutish Stanley (Teddy Tahu Rhodes). Cradled in music of great beauty and lyricism Previn creates a mood within the orchestra as an arching and aching commentary under Stella’s attempt to make Blanche understand her love. As important as the sung music are Previns’s preludes and interludes. The prelude includes jazzy chords that recur and represent, like a motive, Blance Du Bois doom. The interludes, like those in Menotti’s The Consul, hold or develop the action of a scene and seamlessly develop it into the next.

Tackling such a landmark drama as A Streetcar Named Desire was a brave and almost heroic undertaking but Previn’s confidence and skill have made it one of the better American operas of the last twenty years, if not one of the best since Samuel Barber’s Vanessa of half a century ago. Like Barber, Previn has the compositional nouse to make time stand still, even when the imminent tragedy is piling up. Blanche’s “I Can Smell the Sea Air” — in the play just another Blanche’s hopeless and self-deluding rambles — appears in the opera as moment of stillness and beauty (as well as a tragic indicator) and not surprisingly started to gather as much popularity as a stand-alone concert item as the more outgoing “I Want Magic”.

Antoinette Halloran as Stella Kowalski, Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois

Blanche is opera’s tragic protagonist, just as she is in the play but, as with the play, her antagonist, Stanley Kowalski almost overtakes her. Teddy Tahu Rhodes has made something of a name for himself in the role both physically and vocally. He first undertook the role in Washington and later in the Viennese premiere in March 2007 and then in the Australian later that year. His well-known physical credentials are perfectly suited to the role as is his deep and well-focussed baritone. Here he lessens that focus giving it a blunt edge for Stanley’s frequent and violent outbursts. Philip Littell’s libretto follows the play text with often slavish faithfulness and Little retains enormous amounts of the original text in, what can sound when it sung rather than spoken, rather banal. In his earliest appearance, and already displaying his contempt for Blanche’s pretentious mannerism, Rhode’s voice sounds almost cavernous in darkness and depth. That their relationship will end in one of the most frightening assaults in theatrical literature seems almost pre-ordained from the moment Rhodes opens his mouth. In the scene leading to Blanche’s assault he goads and threatens her while Previn’s music, now keenly integrating the vocal and orchestral fabric into an explosive scene with the same cathartic power as the verismo operas of the early twentieth century. These final two scenes are a genuinely disturbing experience to watch. Even the though the opera has been served well by a recording taken from the premiere, it really needs to be re-recorded to preserve the boiling, aggressiveness of Rhodes’s interpretation.

Blanche is rightly the opera’s heroine and Yvonne Kenny achieves her best work in the many introspective moments. Only the most dramatic moments appear to tax her voice but her interpretation of “I Can Smell the Sea Air” is ravishing. Mad women and mad scenes are noting new to opera and the pathos of Blanche Du Bois’s final scene is as good as any of them. Caressing the final floating high notes of “I Can Smell the Sea Air” she is minutes later pinned to floor by the madhouse nurse and finally lead away in final scene as disturbing in its pathos as the brutality of the rape scene that precedes it.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois

Stuart Skelton is another singer of international status. Fresh from a recent triumph in Sydney as Peter Grimes, he brought the same naivety to his interpretation of Mitch. The hopeless desire for and then cruel rejection of Blanche even harks back to the scenes between Grimes and Ellen Orford in Britten’s opera.

As Stella Antoinette Halloran is in the same vocal league as her internationally known colleagues. Her singing is constantly subtle and is beautifully supported soprano. Halloran features in a disc on the Australian label ABC Classics of Puccini arias and duets and which is worth seeking out, hers is a voice to listen out for.

The opera’s hothouse atmosphere is well captured by John Stoddart sets; seeming to be mouldering through years of damp and neglect although there is no suggestion of Blanche’s cramped and curtained sleeping quarters. The State Theatre stage is larger than its more famous Sydney counterpart and the revolving set sits within the larger area concentrating the attention to stage action. The director, Bruce Beresford, has, like Previn, had a long in motion pictures and, as a film director, understands the importance of a musical undercurrent. He achieves many detailed effects despite working on a large stage and even employs film projections in key moments to clever effect.

This current revival is a significant event in the company’s repertoire development and hopefully signals that the production will now remain Opera Australia’s permanent repertoire.

Michael Magnusson

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