You can get Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" both with and without music this week at the Kennedy Center. The Eisenhower Theater is offering the original play as part of an ongoing festival titled "Tennessee Williams Explored." Meanwhile, on Saturday night the Washington National Opera mounted the East Coast premiere of Andre Previn's lushly ambitious operatic setting, first presented in San Francisco in 1998.
My own take on the play is somewhat heretical. I believe that if it had been written after 1970 or thereabouts ("post-Stonewall," as the cultural historians would put it), "Streetcar" would have been immediately recognized as knowing, flamboyant camp in the hilariously over-the-top manner of "Mommie Dearest" or the later Judy Garland. The female characters -- Stella and Blanche -- are frail, fluttery, ineffective ninnies, sketched in sugar and acid, their every action seemingly impelled by glandular hysteria. Mitch, the "decent" male, lives at home, predictably dominated by his mother. That leaves Stanley Kowalski -- brutal, stupid, boozy, dangerous, sexy, scrumptious Stanley -- and one cannot escape the uncomfortable feeling that Williams was drooling the whole time he was bringing this fantasy to life.
Still, if "Streetcar" has little to do with recognizable human behavior (no, not even in the Deep South), that hardly rules it out of consideration for successful opera, as any lover of "Il Trovatore" or "La Traviata" can tell you. Philip Littell's libretto is both succinct and relatively true to Williams; it is Previn's score, for all of its occasional radiance, that seems fatally out of place.
This, despite the fact that there are few more versatile and deeply cultured musicians around than Previn. Over the course of a career that now spans half a century, he has distinguished himself as jazz pianist, pop composer, film musician and symphonic conductor (he led the performance on Saturday) -- yet, in this particular case, all of Previn's sophistication works against him. The result is an elegant, opulent, European modernist opera with an urgent, primitive and unmistakably American setting; the phrase "cognitive dissonance" hardly begins to describe it. Imagine a Richard Strauss or Alban Berg setting the line "Hey, toots! Get out of the bathroom!" -- exact quote -- for baritone and full orchestra and you'll have some idea of the problems that faced Previn. He has many gifts, but crudity, for better and for worse, is not among them.
Still, as both composer and conductor, Previn elicited marvelously rich and multilayered textures from the house orchestra. Outside of a sultry, bluesy a cappella hum that Previn allots to his women (first Stella and then Blanche) when they are sexually spent, he mostly relegates jazz to the lower brass, which put up quite a roar. There are some dense, complicated arias, mostly for Blanche, but also for Mitch. And yet, as music drama, this "Streetcar" simply refuses to budge.
Nobody could complain about the cast the WNO assembled, however. Susannah Glanville, as Blanche, looks like a cross between Ann-Margret and Sandy Dennis and sings with a firm, clean, agile and tireless soprano voice of no mean brilliance. Peggy Kriha Dye made a winning, sultry Stella. Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, the sole carryover from the premiere, sang with empathy, intensity and immaculate diction as Mitch, while Ryan Ralph brought the requisite awkwardness to the role of the young collector.
As Stanley, Teddy Tahu Rhodes called to mind a hunkier Sting doing a long series of beer commercials all the while keeping his stomach flat. It is perhaps a sign of Previn's discomfort with the project that Stanley has, by and large, the least interesting music in the score: He is left to make his strongest impression stripping and strutting. Still, Rhodes has a full and versatile baritone voice that would be just as pleasing in the more ambitious American musicals (a terrific Billy Bigelow in "Carousel," for example) as in the opera house.
Stage director Brad Dalton has placed the action in what he calls a "huge tilted vortex" -- a long membrane with doors opening and shutting (the Kowalski bathroom never seems to decide on which side of the stage it wants to be) -- with appropriately claustrophobic effect.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" will be repeated Tuesday, Friday, next Monday and May 27, 30 and June 2, with a substantially different cast next Monday and June 2. Tuesday night will be Previn's last; Federico Cortese will conduct the subsequent performances. There should be tickets available in all price ranges; see www.dc-opera.org. I hope the WNO will not be discouraged by the small house on opening night: The company's stated determination to present American works is a noble one, and certainly in keeping with its newly designated status as a "national opera." This "Streetcar" has been given an earnest, consummately professional production. But there are better works out there.