Lots to desire in “Streetcar”

By M.L. Rantala
Classical Music Critic

Renee Fleming has been Lyric Opera’s creative consultant since 2010, but in spite of this until last week she hadn’t appeared in an opera at Lyric during her tenure. She made up for this by headlining a special, four-performances-only, just-for-subscribers production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The operatic treatment of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name was created by André Previn and librettist Philip Littell.

The production was advertised as semi-staged, and even though there is little in the way of stage dressing, what is there — tables and chairs, a bed, a trunk of clothes — is deployed with aplomb and the claustrophobic atmosphere of a cramped apartment in a dingy precinct of New Orleans was deftly realized.

The orchestra is placed at the back of the stage, heightening the intimacy of the action and creating a new experience for Lyric listeners. And there is no apparent difficulty for the singers who nearly always had their back to the conductor. Evan Rogister, who also conducted Lyric’s Rigoletto, presided over a languid performance which never drags, even clocking in at more than three hours.

Fleming’s Blanche DuBois is splendid and she’s notably adept at slowly unfurling her character’s pain and eventual madness. Her singing is at turns pretty and appropriately brittle, and her stage presence is magnetic. Previn wrote the opera specifically for Fleming, and he could not possibly have been disappointed with any aspect of her realization of the role.

Susanna Phillips, an alum of the Ryan Opera Center, is similarly fine as Blanche’s sister Stella. She has some of the most beautiful music in the opera, and she is particularly gorgeous in the vocalese she sings in a dreamy manner after an episode in bed with her husband.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, in his Lyric Opera debut, is an imposing Stanley who can turn a T-shirt into a menacing prop. His voice is strong and compelling but nonetheless it is his voice that is the evening’s biggest drawback. This New Zealander has such a terrible, weird American accent that it would have been far less distracting to let him sing with his native accent and have the audience imagine that Stanley’s Polish heritage somehow comes via the Antipodes.

Anthony Dean Griffey, who like Fleming sang in the world premiere, re-creates the role of Mitch with flair.

The music for this opera has been subject to criticism, generally viewed as too amorphous and lacking in sufficient power. But the jazzy inflections are perfect, and Previn has created in music something that truly complements the story.