FGO returns, as strong cast makes a worthy case for Previn’s “Streetcar”

By Lawrence Budmen

Elizabeth Caballero as Blanche DuBois, Rebecca Krynski Cox as Stella, and Hadleigh Adams as Stanley Kowalski in Florida Grand Opera’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo: Daniel Azoulay

Opera returned to downtown Miami on Saturday night when Florida Grand Opera presented André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the Arsht Center, the company’s first mainstage production in two years. 

Opening FGO’s 80th anniversary season and Susan T. Danis’ tenth as CEO and general director, Previn’s setting of Tennessee Williams’ classic play was a bold choice.  While Previn’s score is more admirable than substantial, the production and musical elements were first rate, with the organization returning in top form.

Phillip Littell’s libretto adheres closely to Williams’ original text which is both deeply poetic and musical. Previn’s score spans diverse stylistic paths from Straussian chromaticism to Copland-Bernstein Americana, jazz and blues and the Hollywood sound (with which the composer was very much engaged during the 1950’s and 60’s). 

Most of the vocal writing is in recitative form with occasional extended solo arioso. The orchestra provides running commentary on the play’s action and emotional core. Vividly suggesting the clanging sound of a streetcar and the hot, steamy atmosphere of New Orleans, the opera’s very first bars are potent mood settings. 

Ultimately, while Previn’s score is skillful, it seems more like a motion picture soundtrack, a backdrop to the unfolding drama. The play tends to drive the music rather than vice versa. Still there are moments that pack a theatrical punch and the cast excelled at them.

In the pivotal role of the fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois, Elizabeth Caballero dominated every scene. Her portrayal of the heroine’s mental disintegration was appropriately devastating. With a silvery high range (which soared in the aria “I want magic”) and richly colored middle register, she brought off Blanche’s mood swings with sympathy and pathos. 

Caballero’s traversal of Blanche’s Act II narrative of discovering that her former husband was gay and his subsequent suicide was overwhelming in its emotional impact. Her soft repetition of the play’s famous final line “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers” proved heart wrenching.  Caballero even managed a plausible Southern accent. This talented soprano’s performance brought her to a new level as a powerful singing actress.

As Blanche’s sister Stella, Rebecca Krynski Cox’s lighter timbre contrasted with Caballero’ darker sound and she astutely conveyed Stella’s divided loyalties between concern over her sister’s fragile mental state and devotion to her rough, brutal husband Stanley Kowalski. 

Stanley may be the classic theatrical anti hero but New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams proved nothing short of heroic in assuming the role on less than a week’s notice (prior to rehearsals) when Steven LaBrie cancelled to join the pop group Il Divo. Adam’s strong baritone and striking stage presence belied his late encounter with the role. Previn casts Stanley as more a stock villain than the complicated, flawed character in Williams’ play. Most of the part is written at top volume. Adams excelled at the role’s few tender moments with Stella where his vocal palette took on greater warmth and bloom. His English diction was exceptionally clear which was advantageous when the subtitling failed for several minutes early in the second act.

Nicholas Huff was a gentle and appealing Harold Mitchell. His fine grained lyric tenor captured the character’s kind heartedness. There was real chemistry in his playful scenes with Caballero which made Mitch’s rejection of Blanche, when he learns of her seedy past, all the more heartbreaking. Huff’s explosive outburst when he realizes Stanley’s treachery was riveting.

Stephanie Doche etched a sympathetic portrait of the Kowalskis’ neighbor Eunice with the dusky mezzo to match. Charles Calotta as the Collector and Amanda Olea as the Mexican Woman turned cameos into striking theatrical moments. David Margulis, Thomas Ball and Katherine Holobinko capably assayed smaller roles.

Previn’s busy orchestral writing is complex and unrelenting. Indeed some of the work’s most imaginative moments come in the instrumental interludes between scenes. Gregory Buchalter masterfully coordinated the score’s shifting meters and textures. His expert pacing and total command drew outstanding playing from the ensemble while never overwhelming the singers.

Drawing vivid portraits from all of the singers, director Jeffrey Buchman emphasized the tension and danger between the protagonists. The production’s velocity and high drama were consistently gripping. Steven C. Kemp’s tenement setting (from New Orleans Opera) and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s period costumes captured the work’s darkish milieu.

At the final curtain, the well-occupied house’s applause and bravos were long and loud. While Previn’s Streetcar is not a great American opera, it makes for a compelling evening of theater with music in FGO’s outstanding presentation.

Florida Grand Opera repeats A Streetcar Named Desire 2 p.m. Sunday, and 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. February 3 and 5 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.  fgo.org

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Sun Jan 23, 2022
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