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02 August, 2007

Sydney Streetcar - not for me!

Sydney Opera House

A Streetcar Named Desire. Andre Previn. Thursday 2 August 2007

Dear Colleagues,

I concede my ignorance, having seen neither play nor movie of this name. Reports from others indicate both would run rings around the work as an opera. And this, despite an excellent drama played out on a fine revolving set with tasteful and meaningful projections, scrim and sensitive lighting work.

Composers should be compelled to write a beautiful melody before writing an opera or a musical. Some successful operas (eg. Werther) contain but one unique tune. Although a ripping and gripping yarn, Previn’s Streetcar lacked the essentials of opera to my mind and ear. There is no chorus. There is no memorable overture. There is no grand aria (some will argue with this, but I would ask them to sing it!). There are high notes, yet they are discomforting and in some cases painfully disconnected with the vocal line, such as it is, largely recitative. Under Tom Wood, the orchestra launches into strains of fine jazz at times, but each melts back into the seamless, discordant ‘traffic’ noise of Previn’s penned score.

As I was not elevated by the musical goings on, I quietly mused on the rise and fall of the American Empire. New Orleans is now a decimated city from neglect and storms. The twin towers are gone due to resentment abroad. And just as we sat comfortably in the Sydney Opera House, people were stunned to find cars and people thrown into the waters of the northern Mississippi where a defective public bridge just collapsed without warning.

Yvonne Kenny has again attempted a role which is beyond her current capabilities vocally although she is a fine actress and is convincing enough as Blanche Dubois. Her diva talents extended to some unpleasant high notes, but also some beautiful, extended pianissimi. But this does not an opera make.

Stella was played with flair by Antoinette Halloran and her husband Stanley by Teddy Tahu Rhodes. The latter donned numerous variously torn garments and he drank perhaps a dozen bottles of beer during the course of the evening. Harold was played by Stuart Skelton, holding his own with some difficult tenor singing and convincing acting. Andrew Brunsdon, Angus Wood and Catherine Carby each also put in proficient performances. The decision to use southern accents was probably a mistake, coming out as a mish-mash of drawls. One early line involved the ubiquitous expression “y’all” yet was still pronounced “you all”!

A friend commented that she found the opera lacked the feeling of heat, something which pervaded the play and movie. No wonder Miss Blanche is always taking a bath and Stanley always reaching for a ‘stubby’ of beer. There certainly was little to indicate a serious summer to my recollection. Although there was an electric fan, it was not even switched on.

In fact, the evening was a dead loss for me, as an old fashioned opera person. The story is rather convoluted in three acts on the same sets. It almost keeps the theatrical ‘unities’ (baby is born presumably some months later). There is no crucial dramatic moment to my mind. The ‘rape scene’ towards the end is not used to dramatic or musical advantage and we are left with the unresolved contradiction of Blanche as either the rambunctious flirt from Laurel Mississippi or equally possibly the maiden school marm as she presented originally in the play/opera.

All in all a let down. But did we really expect Verdi, Puccini of Bernstein? I don’t think so!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..