From 1920-1948 New Orleans Streetcars ran on a route called the Desire Line. In Tennessee Williams’s play, Blanche says, "They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields!" The ride brings her to the Kowalski home where the action in both the play and the opera take place.
In 1947, the premiere production of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway to begin a two-year run. Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. At the close of the first performance, the audience applauded for almost thirty minutes. The next year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In 1949, Laurence Olivier directed the London production of Streetcar starring Vivien Leigh. The 1951 film adaptation of the play directed by Kazan featured Brando, Malden, and Hunter reprising their stage roles. Vivien Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche. The movie won three Academy Awards for acting: Leigh for best actress, Malden for best supporting actor and Hunter for best supporting actress. Brando was nominated for best actor but lost.
Composer André Previn and librettist Philip Littell wrote the opera A Streetcar Named Desire in 1995, but it was not staged until 1998. Then, San Francisco Opera mounted it in a production by Colin Graham starring Renée Fleming as Blanche, Rod Gilfry as Stanley, Elizabeth Futral as Stella, and Anthony Dean Griffey as Mitch. On May 18, 2014, L A’s purple clad jacaranda trees bloomed as forcefully as magnolias bloom in the Deep South. The warm weather and colorful display put the California audience in the right mood for librettist Philip Littell and composer André Previn’s musical version of the Williams play. Brad Dalton directed L A Opera’s production, which featured effective costuming by Johann Stegmeir and atmospheric lighting by Duane Schuler.
Renée Fleming and Anthony Dean Griffey repeated their roles of Blanche and Mitch; Ryan McKinny was Stanley; Stacey Tappan, Stella; Victoria Livengood, Eunice; Joshua Guererro, Steve; and Cullen Gandy, the Young Collector. Making his debut at L A Opera, Evan Rogister conducted with a broad style that easily encompassed Previn’s allusions to various forms of music not often heard in opera. Previn gives us jazz, blues and even a touch of Richard Strauss.
Ryan McKinny as Stanley Kowalski yells “Stel-lah”.
Instead of placing the orchestra in the pit between the audience and the action, Stage Director Dalton put the Kowalski’s tenement apartment up front with the orchestra behind the singers. Although the locals are in work clothes, Blanche wears a party dress and a flower in her hair when she is not monopolizing the bath. Fleming sang her role with a sultry air. Her smooth, creamy tones revealed her character’s ultra-refined dream world as she told of having once been married to a gay man.
The moment when Blanche met Stanley was electric. From that first second, the audience knew he hated everything she valued. Ryan McKinny was an evil but believable Stanley who exuded strength and macho sexuality. Although he had no aria, he made a firm impact with his excellent diction. Stacey Tappan’s Stella was so totally attached to Stanley that his violent nature did not discourage her. She was a slave to his sexual instincts and sang her most affecting refrain about his lovemaking. The Los Angeles Opera audience had seen Tappan in smaller parts, but this was her first leading role. Expect to see her as many more important characters.
Anthony Dean Griffey reprised his role as Mitch, the “mama’s boy” who does not know how to talk to a young lady. His character’s gaucheries provided a bit of necessary levity for this dramatic piece and his resonant tenor sound rang out with burnished colors. As Eunice, Victoria Livengood was the last person to turn against Blanche. At the end, however, it was Eunice who gave the unwelcome guest to the doctor because she thought there was nothing else to do. At the final moment, Blanche stands next to the ghost of the dead husband who has haunted her all through the opera. This was a spellbinding performance of an important modern work that should appear on many more stages.
Cast and production information:
Blanche Dubois, Renée Fleming; Stanley Kowalski, Ryan McKinny; Stella Kowalski, Stacey Tappan; Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, Anthony Dean Griffey; Eunice Hubbell, Victoria Livengood; Steve Hubbell, Joshua Guerrero; A Young Collector, Cullen Gandy; A Doctor, Robert Shampain; A Nurse, Cynthia Marty.