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“I think ‘Streetcar’ is an opera already, except that it doesn’t have music,” composer André Previn once said in sizing up Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Virginia Opera’s powerhouse production of Previn’s three-hour 1998 opera, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” now in the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage, shows just how right he was.
What figure in American theater is more star-crossed, poetically delusional and operatically self-dramatizing than Blanche DuBois, the fading and wayward Mississippi belle who seeks refuge from life’s harsh realities in the cramped New Orleans apartment occupied by her sister Stella and Stella’s primal, often brutish husband, Stanley Kowalski?
What triangle in modern American theater is more primed for emotional explosions — operatic fireworks, if you will — than the clash between Blanche’s aspirations to gentility and what Stanley rightly sees as an invasion of the home he shares with Stella, whose allegiance is often torn between the two?
Previn’s operatic transfer is not perfect. Philip Littell’s libretto follows Williams’ text closely, but Williams’ genius for writing lines that echo in the memory between a laugh and a tear somehow loses its edge when set to music.
Neither is Virginia Opera’s production without fault. Blanche’s would-be seduction of the paperboy, for example, lacks the necessary eroticism to tie it into the rest of the opera because the paperboy turns into a man more awkward than innocent.
But this is mere quibbling in light of what Previn and Virginia Opera’s “Streetcar” director, Sam Helfrich, have wrought.
The proceedings begin with bluesy bursts of cacophony from conductor Ari Pelto’s large pit orchestra, and Pelto’s musicians prove adept at charting Blanche’s emotional disintegration for the next three hours.
The three leads act as well as they sing, and that’s excellent indeed. Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan’s Blanche is heart-wrenching and infuriating in just the right measure. She brings a special poignancy to her revelation that her thoughtlessness led to the suicide of her young husband long ago.
Baritone David Adam Moore’s Stanley and soprano Julia Ebner’s Stella share a powerful sexual chemistry that signals that, despite Stanley’s boorishness, their marriage has a sound foundation in love. This increasingly makes the more and more distraught Blanche the odd woman out.
Tenor Scott Ramsay is also affectingly cast as Mitch, Stanley’s awkward poker-night buddy who might have brought Blanche the security she so desperately needs, but is thwarted by Stanley’s misguided attempts to save his friend from a pretentious woman he despises.
“Streetcar” plays out in 1940s costumes — the play opened on Broadway in 1947 — in a scenic concept that may seem strange at first. Forget Jo Mielziner’s skeletal, poetic, New Orleans-flavored setting that made the original Broadway production so memorable.
In Virginia Opera scenic designer Andromache Chalfant’s vision, “Streetcar” plays out on a tennis court-size platform surrounded by six doors.
Blanche’s world is reduced to a huge steamer trunk; Stanley’s, to the kitchen table where he plays poker. The only other piece of furniture, a sofa, becomes the play’s chief battleground.
It works, and those doors get quite a creative workout during the evening.
Virginia Opera’s “Streetcar” packs a wallop.
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© Roy Proctor, 2013, Richmond Times-Dispatch