The Music of ‘Desire’

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: an Opera by Andre Previn in its Austrian Premiere

It is a brave act for any composer to take on the adaptation of one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century. But this is exactly what André Previn has done with his adaptation of Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, that premiered Feb. 28, at Vienna’s newly renovated Theater an der Wien.

Eric Arman, Crista Ratzenboeck, Janice Watson, Anselm Lipgens in ‚A Streetcar Named Desire‘ | Photo: Rolf Bock

The distinguished conductor, pianist and respected film composer has realised an eclectic three-act opera based on Williams’ play, combining a variety of musical styles that supports the powerful text and even enriches it, spinning out a web of sound that successfully fills out dramatic texture.

It is a challenging text to match, linguistically stunning, yet with an emotional power certainly well suited to operatic treatment. It poses the question as to how many lies and how much self-deception are necessary to prevent the collapse of a ruined life, Streetcar is also seen as a portrait of the death of the culture of the American South, and the wrenching transition into modernity in Post War America.

Written sixty years after the play’s opening, Previn’s opera was first performed in San Francisco in 1998. In this production, an excellent cast supported by the well-rehearsed Vienna Symphony as pit orchestra under Welsh conductor Sian Edwards ensured a powerful and very moving performance.

Streetcar is Previn’s first opera: “I am sure, someone, important or unimportant, will accuse me of having composed film music,” the composer said recently in an interview. “The work might seem like nothing more than a soundtrack with sung dialogues. But I will contest that view.”

This production supports that. This opera shows strong coherence; power emotional violence is the unifying element of the work, vividly expressed by the singers as well as the orchestra, where particular high and low ranges merged in aggressive cluster chords. The overall structure of the opera builds around dialogues, interlinked with expressive arias.

The Viennese performance depended almost entirely on the strength of the singers’ acting abilities, as the set design (by Norwegian Director Stein Winge) involved a rotating stage for the Kowalski flat, its sections fragmented at angles with only little furniture. The stage revolves as the action moves from one room to another. Later, leading up to the break-down, the set keeps turning, relentlessly into the climax, the rape of Blanche DuBois by her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski.

Janice Watson’s realisation of the mental collapse of Blanche is convincing, both musically and dramatically, unfolding gradually during the course of the play, saving it from a weak initial entrance and first exchange between Blanche and her sister Stella, sung by Mary Mills, which lacked the needed range of colors between the two voices.

The second act, however, was a successful work of expressive lyricism, as Blanche and the shy mama’s boy Mitch, was interpreted with sensual schmaltz worthy of any Italian opera. This contrasted effectively with the violent character of Stella’s husband, Stanley, sung here by the New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whose aggressive outbursts are already predestined in Previn’s music.

Act three finally saw the climax of the drama, and the denial of the real events culminates in the tragic, and musically cathartic, ending. This was also the part where Winge’s stage directions were most convincing. With the exception of Mitch, the men return to their daily card game, and the women return to their housework – and Blanche is led off by the doctor, repeating the line “Whoever you are… I’ve always had to rely on the kindness of strangers,” without any instrumental accompaniment.

The Vienna Symphony was particularly well-prepared and well- balanced with the vocal ensemble. Although the composer required large instrumental forces in the pit, it never felt disproportionate in the comparatively intimate Theater an der Wien.

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