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Stacey Tappan as Stella Kowalski
20 Apr 2016

San Jose’s Smooth Streetcar Ride

In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

San Jose’s Smooth Streetcar Ride

A review by James Sohre

Above: Stacey Tappan as Stella Kowalski


“Lavish” may not be quite the right word, for while Brad Dalton’s direction and scenery were mightily effective, they were daringly spare. The orchestra is placed upstage behind a simple platform that juts out toward the audience over the usual pit. This creates an immediacy that allows director Dalton to make every gesture connect. Every nuance of character relationship has a visceral impact.

On that playing space, designer Dalton has simply added a host of wooden straight back chairs, a kitchen table, a double bed, a trunk, and a few simple props. It is difficult, nay dangerous, to be this simple, but the risk paid off in spades. These homely set pieces were endlessly re-configured in all manner of interesting patterns by a mute “Greek chorus” of particularly attractive, buff and (many) shirtless young men.

This conceit was quite a brilliant theatrical effect. The young men represent Blanche’s multiple past partners, and they often accompany her, distract her, dog her, and define her. They are not omnipresent, but their appearances were very well-calculated, none more so than when they surrounded Blanche and Stanley as he raped her down center stage. Forming a semi-circular barricade with their backs to the audience, torsos bared, they pulsated down and up as one to suggest the mounting fervor of the sex act.

Streetcar8.pngMatthew Hansom (Stanley) and Ariana Strahl (Blanche)

The fluidity of the set piece placement also allowed for great variety in the blocking and the visual impact was heightened exponentially. It didn’t matter that the table was not always in the same place, or the bed, or the trunk, or the imagined doorways. The effect was as unsettled as Blanche’s emotional state. The usual two story set was deftly suggested by having Eunice simply stand on a chair and “yell down” from the second story when required. Mr. Dalton’s direction was a model of creativity and restraint.

The only final scenic element was a bare bulb hanging off right center. This is needed for the paper lantern to temporarily cover it, serving as a potent Tennessee Willams metaphor: hiding the truth under pretty trappings. Capitalizing on that basic “illumination,” David Lee Cuthbert conjured up a bewitching and moody lighting design that not only partnered beautifully with Mr. Dalton’s concept but also greatly magnified its impact. Mr. Cuthbert’s meticulous blending of area lighting, specials, gobo effects, and the judicious use of follow spots was really quite splendid.

Johann Stegmeir’s costume design was also well considered, especially for the men and secondary women. For Blanche, Mr. Stegmeir made her more glamorous than usual, in fact, was she too attractive? The “usual” design renditions of this classic script at least hint at decay, faded glory, and a slightly moldy New Orleans, its Old World allure fraying around the edges. With the minimalistic set elements, the one place this milieu might have been conjured was in the costumes. The attire was wonderfully constructed and carefully selected, but might have been more characterful.

In the pivotal role of Blanche DuBois, Ariana Strahl was a real star presence. This is arguably one of the most complex roles in the English language theatrical canon, and Ms. Strahl did not shrink from its mighty challenges. She sings it beautifully, with a ringing soprano possessed of considerable beauty, assured technique, even production throughout the range, and consummate musicianship. Every move she made was motivated by the drama, and ably conveyed the script as musicalized by Mr. Previn.

What Ariana does not embody just yet is the haunted quality that permeates her being, the barely suppressed emotional turmoil, and the encroaching dementia that informs her practiced deceptions. Yes, Blanche needs all of that, and then she must sing demanding music, too! Ms. Strahl is young, she is highly gifted and smart, attractive and empathetic, so there is no doubt she will grow into this part and fully discover its many facets. She deserves to have many more outings as Ms. DuBois.

Stacey Tappan was nigh unto perfection as Blanche’s simpler sister Stella Kowalski. Her silvery soprano was captivating and shimmering. Her easy delivery of the top register was matched by a well-focused tone, which found an exciting presence in the middle range where much of the ‘conversational’ vocal writing lives. She was wholly believable in her blind love and physical attraction to her husband Stanley.

While the two male leads sang powerfully and made impeccable vocal impressions, they were physically miscast. Opera San Jose has a wonderful roster of resident artists who serve effectively in a wide variety of roles all season long. However, this can result in the occasional odd match-up. The accomplished baritone Matthew Hanscomb has the perfect physique for the sympathetic role of Mitch, the lovable, slightly hangdog teddy bear. Unfortunately, Mitch is a tenor role. Stanley needs an animal allure, an effortless sexual appeal. While Mr. Hanscomb sang the part with power, insight, and flawless delivery, no matter how much he committed to suspending his own disbelief that he was a chick magnet, he couldn’t suspend mine.

Conversely, the rather lumpy good-boy Mitch was here impersonated by the handsome, trim, preppy tenor that is Kirk Dougherty. Again, a terrific vocalist, in total command of his considerable resources, showing off a total understanding of what he is singing, and pouring his heart out as he regales us with a honeyed, attractive lyric instrument. But when the script requires him to say he is out of shape, and that he weighs “190 pounds,” well Mr. Dougherty does not look as though he could tip that scale even soaking wet in several layers of winter clothing. Still, these two men are real company assets, and within their own physical realities, they give their all to the commendable ensemble effort.

Xavier Prado did double duty with a nicely sung Young Collector, and as a ghostly presence as Blanche’s young husband who killed himself. Cabiria Jacobsen was a brazen and appropriately shrewish Eunice Hubbell, and she clearly relished her bitchy pronouncements. Michael Boley was an amusing and firm-voiced Steve Hubbell, a perfect foil to Ms. Jacobsen’s domineering spouse. Teressa Foss was a fine presence as both the Old Relative and the stern Nurse. Silas Elash proved a solid Doctor and ably held his own in the crucial denouement.

In her poignant aria, Blanche urges “I want magic!” Conductor Ming Luke seemed to have answered her demand, and he made a significant case for Previn’s uneven score. Even at times it seems the writing is all effect and little substance, Maestro Ming paid that no never mind, and plumbed the score for all it was worth and occasionally, more. The absolute commitment to the idiomatic jazz licks is integral to the success of the sound and throughout, the accomplished orchestra responded with a reading of sensitive conviction and cumulative power. Exposed instrumental solos were exceptionally pleasing, especially the sinuous trombone phrases.

Ming Luke managed to make an unfamiliar piece accessible to a willing public, he forged a reading that had a logical dramatic/musical arc, and he commanded all his forces in a taught ensemble effort.

Opera San Jose’s impressive A Streetcar Named Desire should be required viewing for all who care about adventurous programming and first-class stagecraft.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Young Collector: Xavier Prado; Blanche DuBois: Ariana Strahl; Eunice Hubbell: Cabiria Jacobsen; Stella Kowalski: Stacey Tappan; Old Relative: Teressa Foss; Stanley Kowalski: Matthew Hanscom; Harold “Mitch” Mitchell: Kirk Dougherty; Steve Hubbell: Michael Boley; Nurse: Teressa Foss; Doctor: Silas Elash; Conductor: Ming Luke; Director: Brad Dalton; Set Design: Brad Dalton; Costume Design: Johann Stegmeir; Lighting Design: David Lee Cuthbert; Wig and Make-up Design: Vicky Martinez.

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