BWW Reviews: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Shines at Union Avenue Opera
The Union Avenue Opera just gets better and better. This small company, now in its twentieth season, was founded by Scott Schoonover, the young music director of the Union Avenue Christian Church. I believe that he had never produced or directed an opera before, but he took that leap of faith and gave us this gem. He most clearly made the right decision. He is a gifted, inspired, indefatigable, and beloved gentleman who has made this company a true treasure to St. Louis and the region.
Performances are given in the nave of the church; this gives you the most intimate opera experience you're apt to find anywhere. Over the years the nave has been modified to become a true opera venue. (E.g. a few years ago a full orchestra pit was excavated!)
"A Streetcar Named Desire" opened this week and it epitomizes the impressive growth that has been so steadily visible year by year -- growth in sophistication, in production values, in overall quality -- and, of course in budget. "Streetcar" ranks at the very top of the many Union Avenue productions I've enjoyed.
Scenery by Kyra Bishop and lighting by Sean Savoie beautifully fulfill everything one might wish for this classic Williams drama. The rich, warm palette suffuses the Kowalskis' shabby apartment with New Orleans summer. A great gracefully fragmentary old sheer curtain separates the front room from the upstage bedroom, and adds to the dreamy, non-realistic feeling of this place. Late in the play, during Blanche's aria about dying at sea, we're awash in filtered aqua light--as if Blanche's descent had ended in some under-sea cavern--all soft blues and mauve shadows. A bit of Shakespeare crept into my mind: "Those are pearls that were her eyes . . ." Poor Blanche.
Costumer Teresa Doggett, who has dressed so many Union Avenue Opera productions, continues her long tradition of perfection.
And stage director Christopher Limber creates what to me is the best staging of any production I've seen at Union Avenue. A fine actor himself, he knows about acting, about developing and expressing a character, about how a scene is built, about "stage picture" -- and clearly he knows how to coach his actors into very fine performances. Every movement, every gesture so naturally and believably arises out of the dialogue. I have never seen a more moving embrace on stage than when Stanley and Stella cling to each other after he strikes her; it's real and honest and sexy and overflowing with need and passion--but also with tenderness and love.
And such voices! Lacy Sauter, as Blanche, and Katherine Giaquinto, as Stella, both have gorgeous clear lyric soprano voices. (These two ladies are so physically and vocally similar that one would swear they were actual sisters.) Miss Sauter, though near the beginning of her career, shows a wonderfully mature control and subtlety, and Miss Giaquinto beautifully captures all the sweetness that the composer has given to Stella's role; her serenely blissful vocalise after that reconciliatory night with Stanley is one of the high-points of the evening.
Baritone Bernardo Bermudez is very much at home in the role of Stanley. He's vocally strong, as well as proud, fit and comfortable in Stanley's iconic masculinity. It's a splendid job.
Tenor Anthony Wright Webb makes Mitch a lovely, decent man. His pure and smooth voice perfectly convey's Mitch's shy gentleness.
Often the difference between a good production and an outstanding one lies in the casting of the minor roles. Here the supporting singers all do excellent work. Johanna Nordhorn, as the neighbor Eunice, merits a special nod of praise.
So it's a splendid cast and a splendid production. But what about the music?
Ever since "A Streetcar Named Desire" opened in 1947 people have called for it to be made into an opera. Indeed at its very heart it is operatic. Those floridly poetic passages that some called "purple patches" others called "arias". And Williams himself made music an important element in the play; there are more than thirty music cues in the script -- wisps of jazz, popular songs, a rhumba, a recurring polka, honky-tonk and (almost pervasively from a bar 'round the corner) what Williams calls a "blue piano".
Over the years there have been three different ballet versions of "Streetcar" but it was not until 1995 that André Previn was given a commission to compose an opera based on the play. Previn's amazing career has delved into every corner of serious music, from jazz to classical to art songs as well his many award-winning film scores. The score for "Streetcar" is rich and modern and very like the best film score you ever heard. It beautifully supports not only the turbulent emotions in the drama, but often movements and even gestures; it is, if you will, programmatic in a very detailed way. We hear urgency, lust, panic, tenderness.
Previn's collaborator, Phillip Littell, takes his libretto for the most part directly from the text of Williams' play. Hence most of the opera consists of syllabic recitative--occasionally rising into arioso.
Blanche, Stella and Mitch all have lyrical arias or ariettas. Only Stanley is without one. But what is an aria? It's the verbal expression of a character's inner feelings. Stanley, the iconic male, is not verbally articulate; he expresses himself not with words but with his body, his muscle, his hands. So, alas, though Bernardo Bermudez deserves one, Stanley should really not have an aria.
The score left me hungering for three things:
- Though a time or two there is some overlapping of voices, there are absolutely no duets or trios. As in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites we are mostly stuck with just dialogue. I'm told that the Williams estate specifically forbade the inclusion of any duet or trio. (My god! Lawyers telling a composer how to compose?!) What insanity --- to forbid the musical expression of the complex interplay of these hearts?! And surely there's a quartet just waiting to be revealed under that poker scene.
- A stronger sense of New Orleans music. We do find a little jazzy brass, a raunchy saxophone or two, but we want -- we need -- a greater embrace of the musical feel of this place.
- I'm so old-fashioned! I yearned for more melody, more tonality. The scenes of timid romance between Blanche and Mitch do provide a welcome breath of melody, but it's too rare. "Streetcar" is, after all -- in the best sense of the word -- melodramatic. And atonality simply does not serve melodrama very well.
Nevertheless music director Kostis Protopapis deftly leads his singers and orchestra into a performance of great beauty.
The printed programs at the Union Avenue Opera include a long and growing list of donors, all of whom were at one time strangers to the company - -and most of whom are still strangers to me. Opera companies, just as Blanche, "have always depended on the kindness of strangers." I want to thank all these generous strangers for their kindness in giving this lovely company to St. Louis -- and to me.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" plays at the Union Avenue Opera through August 9.