A Streetcar Named Desire has arrived at the Music Center in Los Angeles. This time out, Tennessee Williams’s searing tragedy of broken dreams, sexual longing, and madness takes the form of an opera, and its unobtrusive score by André Previn infuses and lifts the language of the original out of the gutter of New Orleans’ Latin Quarter and sets it down somewhere on the Astral Plane. It’s here that Blanche DuBois is made flesh again by none other than Renée Fleming, lush and radiant. But this is not the frail and vaporous Blanche that we have come to expect; the flutters, feathers, and bows have been discarded and a sturdier and less vulnerable Blanche seems to have gotten off the bus. The flesh may be weak, but the voice is strong, lucid, and rich as coffee and cream in the morning with a warm beignet. Fleming’s Blanche emerges out of the darkness — where the orchestra is huddled at the back of the stage, masterly conducted by Evan Rogister — and nervously stands among a dozen shirtless and muscled young men who mingle and eye the new arrival, ready to pounce. That is, if she doesn’t get them first.
Sister Stella, soprano Stacey Tappan, natural and sensuous as fresh honeydew, finally shows up and takes Blanche home to her steamy Latin Quarter apartment and gets her settled with a stiff drink. And she needs one — plus a few more. This Blanche hits the hootch. The sisters have not seen each other for some time. Stella has married and made a life here among the working poor, and Blanche has lost her teaching job, as well as the family home in Belle Reve, which, while not exactly Tara, was still the last tenuous connection they had to the graces and values that rotted and corrupted the good ole South.
Stella has the first aria, “I can hardly stand it when he’s away.” We can understand why when Stanley, the buff and sinewy Ryan McKinny, whose rich and resonant baritone weighs more than he does, arrives home from work, takes off his sweaty wife-beater undershirt, and stalks around his lair getting acquainted with his hoity-toity sister-in-law. The collision of these two in such cramped quarters will ultimately undo our heroine and crack the fragile shell of her deluded sense of self.
However, she quickly finds a gentleman friend in the shy and slightly oafish momma’s boy Mitch (tenor Anthony Dean Griffey). Mitch is one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies, and he falls hard for Blanche until Stanley spoils any chance of a romance by laying out the sordid details of her past. Their scenes together sparkle with humor and tenderness. Blanche’s aria in Act Three, “I can smell the sea air” is achingly tender as she clings to the transcendent and beautiful to cushion her fall into insanity. Indeed, when the ambulance comes to take her away, she rallies the brave, unbowed self that we have rooted for throughout. “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” she sings as she takes the arm of the attendant on her way to the loony bin. And haven’t we all.
Brad Dalton deftly directs this production with spartan, effective staging, and all the leads are top-drawer singers. The problem here is simply that you will not leave the theater humming a tune. Previn’s score is thoughtful, delicate, and intelligent, but it never fully rips, which may explain why his Streetcar is rarely done.
That said, the L.A. Opera offers us a grand, thrilling, one-of-a -kind experience with this production. There is one performance left on Saturday, May 24 — so race for a ticket.
The Los Angeles Opera presents A Streetcar Named Desire at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion (135 N Grand Ave., Los Angeles) on Saturday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m. Visit laopera.org for tickets and info.