Saturday, March 9, 2013

Review: 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Virginia Opera
Ari Pelto conducting
March 8, Richmond CenterStage

After Act 1 of the first of two Richmond performances concluding Virginia Opera’s run of André Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” one patron remarked, “It ain’t Mozart.” Nor is it Bizet, Puccini, Gershwin, Lloyd Webber, or the Elia Kazan stage production or movie set to music.

It is a richly expressive, dramatically intense translation to music of Tennessee Williams’ story and characterizations, and both a showcase for and challenge to singing actors. Its demands on vocal technique are formidable, especially for the singer portraying Blanche DuBois.

All four of its principals – Blanche, the aging Southern belle with a sordid past to conceal; her younger sister, Stella, whose passion trumps genteel pretense; Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, a virile brute with no time for either gentility or pretense; and Mitch Mitchell, an awkward romantic who falls for Blanche – introduce their characters in a first act that’s basically all recitative, and subsequently flesh out those characters in solos and duets that are more like soliloquies than traditional opera arias.

Kelly Cae Hogan (Blanche), Julia Ebner (Stella), David Adam Moore (Stanley) and Scott Ramsay (Mitch) very ably, at times brilliantly, negotiate Previn’s continuous musical dialogue. While vocalization often overrides diction in the text (by Philip Littell, closely following Williams’ script), and Southern dialect is a sometime thing, the foursome proves remarkably adept at acting in song – a tribute to the singers, and to stage director Sam Helfrich.

Hogan is in consistently strong voice as Blanche, a role that requires as much stamina as Tosca, and conveys her character’s emotional disintegration with great cumulative impact. Moore stakes a gritty and convincingly personal claim on the character of Stanley Kowalski; he’s never a shadow of Marlon Brando, even when crying “Stella!” Ramsay as Mitch, and Drew Duncan in his small role as a newspaper boy, both capture the naiveté of their characters as manipulated by Blanche. Ebner’s Stella strikingly shrinks emotionally as she swells with pregnancy.

Supporting characters, notably Duncan and Margaret Gawrysiak as the Kowalski’s neighbor, Eunice, make strong impressions.

The drama unfolds on a set (by Andromache Chalfant) that’s sparsely appointed but serviceable, with plenty of empty space for the singers to move around in.

Previn’s score, with its many theatrically charged effects, is rendered assertively and edgily by the orchestra, drawn from Hampton Roads’ Virginia Symphony and led by Ari Pelto, whose experience as an opera conductor is evident from start to finish.

For those willing to suspend expectations of romantic aria-singing, 19th-century melodrama and grand-opera spectacle, this “Streetcar” offers music-drama that packs a wallop and characterizations to savor and remember.

The final performance of Virginia Opera’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” will be staged at 2:30 p.m. March 10 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $31-$119. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);

MARCH 17 UPDATE: The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini reviews Renée Fleming as Blanche DuBois in a Carnegie Hall preview of a Chicago Lyric Opera production opening next month: