Virginia Opera masters music but not staging in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
By Joan Reinthaler,
For all its dramatic and emotional appeal, Andre Previn’s 1998 opera “A Streetcar Named Desire,” based on the Tennessee Williams play, has to be a particular challenge for a relatively low-budget regional opera company. Virginia Opera took it on, however, and brought it to the George Mason University Center for the Arts on Friday after runs in Norfolk and Richmond. To say that it met all the challenges successfully might be a stretch, but musically, anyway, it did a terrific job.
Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan, who carries the opera’s heaviest vocal load as Blanche, the increasingly demented and faux-gentile fragile Mississippi flower, carried it beautifully and indefatigably. Her voice is light but has a body that carried easily over Previn’s sometimes full-blown score and, with excellent diction and just a minimum of vibrato, she was able to shade her lines with deftly colored nuance. As Blanche’s sister, Stella, Julia Ebner had a more straightforward assignment that she managed with distinction. The company might have cast this role with someone whose voice didn’t match Hogan’s quite as closely (and the show might have benefited from the contrast) but, as sisters, the match made sense. David Adam Moore — a solid if not threatening Stanley — added steel to his voice where needed and, as Mitch, buddy to Stanley and tempting morsel to Blanche, Scott Ramsay sang with both appealing innocence and wary caution. In smaller roles, Margaret Gawrysiak and Drew Duncan were particularly effective.
The orchestra (members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra) was excellent. Previn’s score bangs around in a whole buffet of styles, and conductor Ari Pelto had his forces reveling as playfully in the bluesy drama of New Orleans funk as in the psychological tension-building of movie-score sophistication.
This leaves the problem of how to interpret this production as theater. There’s the acting (particularly Stella’s), which is understated and headed toward stiff. There is no reaction other than an impersonal hug when Blanche and Stella meet for the first time in years, Stanley doesn’t vent his impatience or frustrations in his demeanor except in occasional outbursts, and people rarely comfort one another with warmth.
The set is an open box, three black walls of a room with two framed doorways in each wall. From time to time tuxedoed men or uniformed soldiers appear to stand silently in these doorways, perhaps as a glimpse into Blanche’s fantasies, and people who are “out” or “in the bathroom” remain in the doorways with their backs to the audience. There is a sofa, a kitchen table and chairs. A huge clothes trunk defines Blanche’s space.
Perhaps without a lot of available electronic stage wizardry, this strangeness is being used as a way to project Blanche’s world through her own eyes. If so, worthy as that goal may be, I’m not sure this production does a good enough job of bringing the audience along. In any case, the opera’s staging challenges are not solved as successfully as its musical ones are.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.