- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Washington National Opera’s new production of Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, is a magnificent disappointment.

In this, the East Coast premiere of the 1998 opera based on Tennessee Williams’ famous play, the company’s gallant singers strive mightily to overcome a weak book and a blustery score. But their Sisyphean labors are thwarted by boldly unimaginative directing and a cheap, dingy, deja-vu set that gives abstract expressionism a bad name.

What went wrong here? The book by Phillip Littell would be a good place to start. While it’s unclear what restrictions Mr. Williams’ estate may have put on Mr. Previn’s librettist, what he eventually provided the composer was a spare scaffolding for recitatives with little poetry to hang an aria on.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Stella’s brief vocalise that ends Act I and Blanche’s poignant song near the opera’s close are as close as we get to the kind of musical moments that opera lovers instinctively crave. Aside from these, Mr. Previn’s score is loaded with the kind of thick, throbbing, dissonance reminiscent of 1950s film scores when such a concept was actually new. Mr. Previn throws in a few jazzy riffs here and there. But he seems fearful of lapsing into New Orleans musical cliches. So he adopts postmodernist cliches in their stead.

The problems in this production don’t stop with the book and the music. Michael Yeargan’s one-size-fits-all set was seemingly appropriated from the back lot flotsam of the film “Motel Hell.” Its long, gray walls are riddled with doors more appropriate to a Depression-era farce. Indeed, one expects the Marx Brothers to come tumbling out of them at any moment.

What we get instead are materializations of ghostly antebellum women and shirtless buff guys glistening with sweat. The entirety is vertiginously tilted at a rakish angle — a startlingly 21st century idea that Alfred Hitchcock thought of in the 1940s.

Making matters worse is Brad Dalton’s wooden direction, exemplified in the opera’s climactic rape scene where Stanley and Blanche are spread-eagled motionless against a wall as cacophonous music throbs and pulsates, obviously demanding a real, physical battle. What could Mr. Dalton have been thinking?

That the cast still makes us care about their characters in this misbegotten mess is a mighty tribute to their talent and tenacity. Soprano Susannah Glanville is a spectacular Blanche DuBois. On stage nearly throughout, her lovely voice showed vocal strain only occasionally. And in the opera’s one true aria, “I can smell the sea air,” she soars in an achingly beautiful melodic moment that was entirely too long in coming.

As Mitch, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey — who sang this role in the original San Francisco Opera production — was affecting as well, particularly in his lyric essay in Act II. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye was touching and sexy as the conflicted Stella, and base-baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes was intimidating as the snarling, brutish Stanley Kowalski, although he didn’t have much musical material to work with.

If you’re willing to put up with three-plus hours of spiky dissonance to catch some spectacular singing, by all means don’t ditch your tickets to this production. But if you want to see Tennessee Williams, the real play is down the hall at the KenCen’s Eisenhower Theater.

*

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: “A Streetcar Named Desire,” by Andre Previn, libretto by Phillip Littell, based on a play by Tennessee Williams

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: At 7:30 p.m. tomorrow , Friday, May 27, and June 2; at 7 p.m. May 24; and at 2 p.m. May 30.

TICKETS $41 to $285

INFORMATION: Call 202/295-2400 or visit online at www.dc-opera.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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