Story: Blanche DuBois travels from her native Mississippi to the Elysian Fields area of New Orleans and the home of her married sister, Stella Kowalski. Stella is surprised at Blanche’s arrival but makes her feel at home. Quickly, though, Stella learns that Blanche has lost the beloved family estate, Belle Reve, and has packed all of her worldly possessions into her suitcases.
The Kowalskis live in a cramped, first-floor apartment, which makes for even more strained quarters with a guest. Pregnant Stella decides not to tell Blanche about her condition at first, but her fragile sister is put to the test anyway when Stella’s blue-collar husband Stanley meets the delicate Southern belle for the first time.
Stanley is the antithesis of the refined Blanche. He bristles at her airs and also at the fact that she has squandered an estate that half- belonged to Stella and, by the Napoleonic Code of Louisiana, to Stanley as well. While Blanche develops a ‘proper’ romance with Stanley’s friend Mitch, her world continues to collapse as Stanley reveals some truths he’s learned about Blanche and her mysterious past.
Highlights: Tennessee Williams’ landmark 1947 drama, which won the Pulitzer Prize, ran for two years on Broadway with stars Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Jessica Tandy and Karl Malden. All but Tandy made the 1951 film directed by Elia Kazan (Vivien Leigh reprised her West End role as Blanche), and ever since the characters of Stanley, Blanche, Stella and Mitch have been etched into the American literary landscape.
In 1998 an operatic version commissioned by the San Francisco Opera had its world premiere there, directed by Colin Graham of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis renown. With a libretto by Phillip Littell and music composed by Andre Previn, the operatic rendition has been performed occasionally since its debut. Now it makes its St. Louis and Missouri premiere at Union Avenue Opera with a strong and sobering production under the incisive direction of Christopher Limber in his Union Avenue Opera debut.
Other Info: Given that Previn has had an expansive career not only in classical music but in films and TV as well, it’s no surprise that his music for A Streetcar Named Desire seems highly cinematic. That underscores the stylistic underpinnings of Streetcar, which appears as suited to opera as it does for the theater or cinema.
Certain elements of the story (Blanche’s declining mental state, Stanley’s base animal nature, the poetic environment of a hot, humid New Orleans) translate well into several genres. Furthermore, it’s easy to follow the story based on its familiarity in other art forms. Limber and conductor Kostis Protopapas quickly immerse the audience into the drama with Previn’s sometimes brash, sometimes mournful composition, reacquainting us with these famous characters.
Kyra Bishop’s scenic design and props beautifully set the table for Williams’ nuanced dialogue through Littell’s filter, evoking the lower-class surroundings that now serve as home for the regally bred Stella. From the plain refrigerator to the black dial phone and the functional kitchen table to the drab, solitary light bulb in the bedroom, Bishop’s eye for detail supplements the sorrowful tale.
There’s other excellent technical work in Teresa Doggett’s sharp costume design, from the faded glory of Blanche’s dresses to Stanley’s ripped shirt, and Sean Savoie’s lighting underscores the melancholy theme of Williams’ tale. Brian Peters adds some starkly realistic fight choreography that causes jolts of reaction.
Bernardo Bermudez and Katherine Giaquinto share sparks of chemistry that show how Stanley’s primordial impulses brings out Stella’s lusty, earthy nature. Their verbal sparring is offset by the obvious sexual delight in each other, which makes Stanley’s brutish assaults on her all the more shocking. Both performers bring convincing acting and singing to their roles.
Lacy Sauter also is highly effective as she fills Blanche with delusions of grandeur and affectations of elegance that hide her sordid past. Her scenes with the predatory Stanley accentuate his threatening nature.
Anthony Wright Webb is particularly noteworthy as the shy, respectful Mitch, an aging bachelor who worries about his mother but is attracted to the beguiling charm of Stella’s ‘high-class’ sister with tragic results. His singing is tender and heartfelt, making Mitch in some ways the most affected character of all.
There’s fine work in smaller roles by Johanna Nordhorn and Robert Norman as upstairs neighbors Eunice and Steve, James Stevens as a newspaper collector greeted by the flirtatious Blanche, Natanja Tomich as a prescient flower woman, Josh Saboorizadeh as poker player Pablo and Anthony Heinemann and Megan Higgins as a doctor and nurse sent to ‘collect’ Blanche.
Union Avenue Opera’s presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire demonstrates the versatility of Williams’ classic tale of misbegotten love and emotional instability in compelling fashion.
Opera: A Streetcar Named Desire
Company: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 North Union Blvd.
Dates: August 8, 9
Tickets: From $15 to $52; contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb