Unfamiliar Operas in NYC Debuts

Andre Previn’s opera based on Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was composed for the San Francisco Opera about fifteen years ago, had a successful premiere, but had never received a staging in New York.  Renee Fleming, the soprano for whom the leading role of Blanche Dubois was written, is an artist-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this season, and was able to enlist the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to include a semi-staged version of the opera as part of their subscription series, performed last Thursday, March 14, so I attended this as a St. Luke’s subscriber. 

Putting on this kind of semi-staged opera performance is a tricky business.  The orchestra is scrunched across the back of the stage, as Carnegie Hall has no orchestra pit, and the performance was staged with props (no sets) in the front half of the stage.  The conductor had a television monitor showing the stage action, and small screens lined the front of the stage facing the cast, who  were thus able to follow the direction of the conductor, who was standing behind them.  There was no amplification of singers as far as I could tell.  I was sitting up in the first row of the balcony.  Coordination between podium, singers and orchestra went very smoothly, but at times some of the singers could not be heard very well above the orchestra – a problem I suspect would evaporate were the orchestra in a pit below the stage.  (This was well demonstrated a week earlier when the New York Philharmonic presented the Broadway musical, “Carousel,” at Avery Fisher Hall with the orchestra on stage and the action in front of the orchestra with some amplification of the voices, resulting in excellent intelligibility.   Although purists may complain about amplification, it is a practical solution to voice and orchestra performances where there is no recessed orchestra pit.) 

That said, this was an enjoyable and effective staging by Director Brad Dalton, Lighting Designer Alan Adelman, and costume designer Johann Stegmeir.  Patrick Summers conducted the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke’s.  Fleming made a wonderfully expressive Blanche, even when she couldn’t clearly be heard.  (Projected titles above the stage certainly helped.)  Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski was never difficult to hear; his big, booming voice projected splendidly over the orchestra, but Carnegie’s acoustics are sufficiently reverberant that the projected titles also helped to make his part more understandable.  Susanna Phillips also gave an excellent performance as Stella Kowalski, and Anthony Dean Griffey was quite moving as Harold Mitchell, the simpleton friend of Stanley who romances Blanche.  Perhaps the most striking performers, at least visually, were the “Men of New Orleans,” supernumeraries without lines to speak or sing!  Other supporting roles were all up to snuff.

Previn’s music is serviceable without being extraordinary.  He is a master of orchestration and effectively creates the requisite moods and emotional states, evoking New Orleans, the French Quarter, and the sleezy ambiance of the rundown neighborhood where the Kowalskis live.  The score is richly lyrical, but I did not hear lots of memorable tunes.  I hesitate to paint with too broad a brush as to this, but much of modern American opera is dramatically effective without being thematically memorable, and Previn’s work here seemed to me to fall into that category.  However, if the piece were taken up into the repertory and performed with some frequency, the tunes might register more.

Tthis is not just a problem of American opera.  On Sunday I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Heinrich Marschner’s gothic opera, “The Vampire,” first performed in Leipzig in 1828.  My description above of Previn’s work on “Streetcar” might well be applied to Marschner’s opera.  It is dramatically effective, the writing for orchestra is well-judged, the choral music is splendid, the score is “richly lyrical,” but again memorable tunes were not present in abundance.  Leon Bostein conducted with great energy, the orchestra played their hearts out (but sounded a bit ragged in some particularly challenging spots), and the large cast sang splendidly.  Nicholas Pallesen made a great vampire (“Lord Ruthven”), especially in his seduction scenes with Tamara Wilson and Jennifer Tiller.  I think the audience favorite was Vale Rideout, a tenor who sang the part of Edgar Aubry, the man who breaks his oath to save the woman he loves (romantic cliche, but heartwarming all the same).  Other role singers, all very accomplished, included Alison Buchanan, Justin Hopkins, Carsten Wittmoser, and Glenn Seven Allen. 

Marschner’s opera alternates dialogue with musical numbers.  The cast performed the dialogue in English to varying degrees of effectiveness — they are, after all, singers, not actors — but the English language dialogue helped in the absence of surtitles to make the action comprehensible, as the sung numbers were performed in German and Carnegie Hall, as is its annoying custom, dimmed the lights even though the ASO distributed libretti with English translations; not much use if it’s too dark to follow along without eyestrain.  (Why don’t they adopt the sensible practice of leaving the lights at normal strength for vocal music that is being performed without projected titles?)

The Collegiate Chorale were truly the heros of the afternoon, performing the many choral numbers with enormous spirit and panache, a credit to their director, James Bagwell.

Perhaps the somewhat nonsensical story line works against this opera belonging in the repertory, although putting aside the supernatural element of the vampire the plot is no more nonsensical than many others that hold the stage, but in an age that is reviving minor early Rossini and the earlier Wagner efforts, this is a piece that should get a look-in from a major opera company in New York.  (Hint, hint, Metropolitan Opera, this could actually be a big hit!).  The seeds of Wagner are very evident!  The piece certainly could use a good modern digital recording with major talent.

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