SAN FRANCISCO — Andre Previn is famous for many things, but as of Saturday night he is now famous for one less. With the world premiere of his first opera, "A Streetcar Named Desire," he can no longer remain the most self-effacing composer of significance.
As a composer (whether for film or the concert hall) and as a performing musician (whether pianist or conductor, be it jazz or classical), Previn has always avoided making big statements. In his Hollywood days he served the studios (and then became downright dismissive of his film scores when he left the business three decades ago).
In his subsequent life as a conductor, he has attempted to serve the great composers. His concert music has been to oblige friends and admired colleagues, composing at the request of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Kathleen Battle or Sylvia McNair. He cherishes wit, understatement, charm, subtlety. He is a consummate musician. He writes to please, and his music typically sounds as if it flows effortlessly from him.
With "Streetcar," just about all of that has changed for the 69-year-old composer. The project of turning Tennessee Williams' classic play into an opera is, by its very nature, a big statement. And San Francisco Opera, which commissioned "Streetcar" and which is little embarrassed by self-congratulation, has brilliantly turned this premiere into a publicity coup.
The press turned out in force Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House. Deutsche Grammophon had microphones hung over the stage; a recording culled from the first performances will be rushed into stores by December, when Public Television will also broadcast the opera. The opening-night audience was a gala one, with tickets costing up to $1,500.
San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri tried for years to bring "Streetcar" to the lyric stage--Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim both turned him down. Previn may or may not be the right composer for "Streetcar"; the best of the music suggests that he is, in fact, the right one.
He does two things in this opera very well. He writes great streetcar music and great music of desire. A powerful train-whistle motif in the orchestra opens the opera and recurs at important moments. The love music between Stanley and Stella, particularly Stella's--languid, smoldering, passionate, rapturous, raw, real--does exactly what music should do for an opera. It reveals why people feel the way that they do. No explanation is necessary.
Yet much of the music for "Streetcar" sounds untypically effortful for Previn, who also conducts the first four performances. He is great in producing a torchy, claustrophobic atmosphere and has not lost his lyrical touch, but the more conversational passages (of which there are many) seem to engage him less.
Philip Littell's libretto is a literal job of telescoping, not interpreting. (He had to keep the Williams estate happy and doesn't seem to mind having done so, according to his statements to the press.)
The production, directed by Colin Graham and designed by Michael Yeargan, is literal as well. The set is a skeleton of the New Orleans apartment and looks like any typical "Streetcar" set, but is lit peculiarly. The proscenium remains illuminated. At the climactic rape scene, meant to be described through a violent orchestral interlude, enough light bleeds to see Stanley and Blanche rush off stage.
Literalness is, of course, meant to be this opera's and this production's hallmark. The cast was chosen to show off impressive young American singing actors who look the part on stage. Rodney Gilfry's Stanley is typecast. He retains an interest in his muscles and relishes taking off his T-shirt. Both Renee Fleming and Elizabeth Futral are able to look the parts as Blanche and Stella.
This is to be Fleming's year. The Metropolitan Opera is staging three new productions for her, and Previn not only created Blanche for her, but might well have titled the opera "Blanche," so musically centered around her is the score.
There is a silvery beauty to Fleming's soprano, along with power and substance, and she clearly makes an effort to come up with a viable operatic interpretation of this mercurial seductress. Yet, in the end, her Blanche does not seem unique--rather, yet one more opera heroine who goes mad, along with the typical show-stopping numbers, including the memorable "I Want Magic," which Fleming has already recorded.
Little comes to life on the stage. Stanley is not given interesting music, and Gilfry lacks the magnetism that one will forever associate with Brando in the role. Ultimately it was Futral's sensuous soprano and deeply drawn portrait of Stella that proved the most interesting performance. Anthony Dean Griffey's Mitch was maybe too likable, but he made an effective foil against Gilfry's caustic Stanley.
The recording should tell us more about this opera. "Streetcar" needs greater intimacy for listeners to savor subtleties that were surely lost in the hubbub of a too-big theater and too-big occasion. But there will be opportunities aplenty, and not just with the recording and broadcast. San Diego Opera stages it next season, and Opera Pacific, Lyric Opera of Chicago and companies as far afield as Australia and Wales have all shown a desire for this "Streetcar."
* Performances of "A Streetcar Named Desire" continue at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, on Wednesday, Saturday, Sept. 29, and Oct 2, 4, 8 and 11. (Alternate casts later in the run.) $22-$145. (415) 864-3330.