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Renee Fleming keeps Lyric’s ‘Streetcar’ on course

Lyric OperChicago presents 'Streetcar Named Desire' with Renee Fleming as Blanche DuBois Anthony Dean Griffey as Harold 'Mitch' Mitchell March

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents "Streetcar Named Desire," with Renee Fleming as Blanche DuBois and Anthony Dean Griffey as Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, March 23, 2013 | Todd Rosenberg For Sun-Times Media

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‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

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♦ Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker

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Soprano Renee Fleming is as level-headed and focused as the fictional character Blanche DuBois is flighty and unhinged.

But they do both believe in loyalty. Fleming, now also creative consultant and a company vice president at Lyric Opera of Chicago, has been loyal to the self-imagined Southern belle Blanche and to the opera written for the singer for 15 years.

Having worked with composer Andre Previn to create an operatic adaptation of the classic 1947 Tennessee Williams play “A Streetcar Named Desire” and its equally legendary 1951 film version, Fleming starred in the work’s premiere at San Francisco Opera in 1998 and has taken it elsewhere since. Unable to persuade the Metropolitan Opera to present the work, she secured its New York debut in a semi-staged version at Carnegie Hall just this month.

Now Chicago has its turn, with a limited run that opened Tuesday at Lyric of this appealing version. For a piece that really is not much of an opera but mostly a play with music, this more ethereal, though fully costumed and acted production may be the most compelling way to present this three-act American tragedy.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra is onstage, as the Orchestra of St. Luke’s was at Carnegie, but positioned near an acoustic shell toward the back wall and sunken down a few feet. In director Brad Dalton’s highly physical and usually smooth-moving conception, a silent “chorus” of six hulking young men provide bayou atmosphere and emotional cues.

Providing atmosphere and emotion also is probably the best way to describe Previn’s score and achievement — or lack thereof. Had this work been written at the time of the play or film, it might have seemed a bit original. Coming half a century later, its jazzy, postwar Hollywood style is entirely derivative, usually pleasant and much more a sort of retread soundtrack than a work of its own substance. The music almost never moves, directs or tells the story. To the extent that there are songs or arias, they are mostly dropped-in set pieces. In the case of the two numbers written for Blanche, they not only add little to the character, they also step out of the flow of the drama and actually diminish the work.

That said, Fleming’s intense commitment, Dalton’s direction, a largely strong cast, Duane Schuler’s lighting wizardry, Johann Stegmeir’s effective period costuming and a good connection between American conductor Evan Rogister and the score and orchestra, make this a surprisingly moving performance, but one much more at the theater than the opera.

Philip Litell’s libretto sticks closely to Williams’ achingly poetic language, and most of it fits well with Previn’s recitative setting and the always difficult task of making sung English clear in an opera house. (Supertitles do assure that nothing is lost.) Susanna Phillips, a Lyric Ryan Center alumna with an international career, is a total fit with Blanche’s younger sister, Stella, trapped in a violent marriage with the feral Stanley Kowalski. Her first act number is one of the work’s two genuine show-stoppers and also gives us the warm and breezy side of her character. It’s really fine performance as a singer and actress.

Ardent tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, part of the original SFO cast, reprises his role as Mitch, Blanche’s arranged local suitor. He owns the part of this heartbroken and heartbreaking figure and also has the work’s other real number; his pairing with Fleming and their extended scene together in Act II are highlights. That Griffey and Phillips come from the South could very well inform their under-the-skin characterizations. The audience rewarded them appropriately.

Making his Lyric debut, baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes is from New Zealand, and alas, it shows. He gets the brutality of Stanley and some of his physical charm and ability at playing mind games with women. But his accent never makes Stanley believable as American, let alone an ethnic factory worker in New Orleans. An imposing physique, shaved head and large Kiwi shoulder and arm tattoo don’t make up for a barking delivery. (Previn has acknowledged that the role is musically underdeveloped and regrets he didn’t give a song to aria to Stanley.)

And Fleming? She gives everything, and we never think that she is anyone other than Blanche, even in “I Want Magic,” which she has made a popular and recital piece, and in the distracting reverie in the last scenes. At 54, she commands much vocal magic and plenty of power in this role; she brings out both the tragic and the horrid side of her troubled and troubling character. Brava.

Veteran North Carolina mezzo Victoria Livengood, a last-minute substitute, turned the neighbor lady Eunice into a Broadway-rich character. Tenor Andrew Bidlack was touching and attractive in the silent role of Blanche’s dead young husband and as the newspaper delivery collector briefly ensnared by Blanche’s seductions. Dominic Armstrong, Joe Lauck and Mary Robin Roth round out the spoken cast. The six “Stanley types,” as Dalton calls them, include Wesley Daniel, the actor-acrobat injured in a freak accident at the dress rehearsal for Lyric’s “Meistersinger.” Welcome back.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).



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