HOT ‘Desire’ Beautifully Done
For an old opera lover, the last two weeks brought me three operas I had not previously known. Such pleasure!
Briefly, the first was on PBS: Bel Canto (composer Jimmy López and lyricist Nilo Cruz, based on the book of the same name by Ann Patchett, premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on December 7, 2015) is the novelized story of the hostage crisis at the Japanese Embassy in Lima, Peru in 1996-7. Held for several months by a guerrilla group looking for independence, the hostages eventually make friends with the soldiers, and all forget they are sitting on a powder keg. The main character is a world famous soprano, known for her beautiful singing, and she is the pivotal figure who tries to keep the peace. Think Renee Fleming. Bel Canto means “beautiful singing.”
Then the Met--Live in HD--presented Romeo et Juliette at Dole Cannery Cinema on Jan. 21. (Well, you know in Hawaii it can’t be exactly live, but the screening you see is of the opera that was performed exactly 5 hours before in NYC. Composer Charles Gounod, libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Based on the Shakespeare play. First performed at the Theatre-Lyrique in Paris April 27, 1867.) The chemistry was hot between Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo who took the leads. The opera dispensed with Shakespeare’s bawdy humor (Sorry, Nurse) and emphasized only the love story and ensuing tragedy. The director further messed with the sequence of events to make the first act all about falling in love, the second all about tragedy and death. Romeo and Juliet even get a duet in the tomb. Beautiful music but Shakespeare did it better.
And now--live, local, and late-breaking--A Streetcar Named Desire, composed by André Previn, libretto by Philip Littell, based on the play of the same name by Tennessee Williams. (Premiered at the San Francisco Opera Sept. 19, 1998.) Opening night at Blaisdell was Jan. 27 with two more performances scheduled on Jan. 29 and Jan. 31.
The story is well-told in music: At the start Stella and Stanley Kowalski are happily married and living in a poor area of New Orleans, ironically called Elysian Fields, when Stella’s sister Blanche du Bois arrives and upsets everything. Blanche appears as an upper class snob, who looks down on Stanley, a “Polack,” and berates her sister for marrying below her station. Meanwhile we see her secretly going after the whiskey stash and flirting with anything in pants. In the small claustrophobic two-room apartment, Stanley resents the interruption of his rambunctious married sex life, Blanche’s usurpation of the only bathroom for her leisurely hot baths, and, more importantly, the loss of Stella’s and Blanche’s childhood estate, Belle Reve, which he believes has cost him financially. Romance blooms between Blanche and Stanley’s bachelor friend Mitch. If you know the play, or the movie from 1951 starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh with Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch, you know there is no happy ending. Stanley’s detective work reveals a very different Blanche from the nearly virginal (she had been briefly married) English teacher on temporary hiatus from her job as she claims to be.
In this production the pivotal roles are taken by Jill Gardner (Blanche), Ryan McKinny (Stanley), Stacey Tappan (Stella), and Richard Cox (Mitch). All sing masterfully, but Blanche’s arias toward the end are ethereal. I say “toward the end” because earlier it seemed to me all was recitative. As I read the supertitles, which seem to be lifted directly from the Williams play, I somehow had the impression that talented singers could improvise a score on the spot, just sing the words in any way they chose. Then if that were recorded--Voila! an opera that just needed orchestration. Perhaps there is more musical thought going into each note that I just don’t understand.
Speaking of orchestration, the HOT orchestra was hot, making their way through the score with its down and dirty jazz notes--loved the trombones--as one might expect from the versatile Previn, better known in his earlier years for his jazz and Hollywood composing/arranging. The set was expansive, the two room apartment filling the whole stage, but at the cost of losing that claustrophobic feeling of three people tripping over each other in the crowded space. But c’est la vie.
Oh, speaking of French, “Blanche” means “white, pure” (which she isn’t) and Belle Reve, the du Bois childhood home, means “beautiful dream,” a dream which is lost forever. “Du Bois” means “of the forest.” The references to French are a kind of shorthand for upper class, the original Euro-settlers of New Orleans being French.
The lighting was responsive in every moment, giving Blanche a soft rosy glow to mask her age in the more dreamlike sequences, but a penetrating glare when her past is revealed. Although there were moments when the colors got a little out of hand, bordering on the Ice Capades.
I do have a complaint about the program, which gave composer’s and librettist’s names in tiny print and no bio or artistic philosophy of either. And there wouldhave been room for that. Also, I consider it pretty standard for a program to announce when and how long the intermissions will be. There were two, about 15 minutes each. Nor do I see any listing of Ensemble players who functioned as phantoms, poker players, and deceased husband.
And now, no opera review would be complete without making reference to the opera singers’ BODIES. Since opera reviews have a notorious history of making reference to singers’ bodies, and since this production seems designed to encourage just such a reaction, I should note here that Ryan McKinny spends as much time with his shirt off as any Baywatch lifeguard. He looks like a surfer dude, with a six-pack to die for. Ladies (and some gentlemen), you will be amazed when Stanley takes off his shirt (often) and your thoughts may stray beyond the music for a moment. Ahem. Let’s get back to the subject at hand.
Great to see HOT tackling new stuff. The production comes off beautifully. Congrats to all concerned. And I am purring to have seen/heard three new (to me) operas in just 15 days.