The San Francisco Opera's world premiere production of Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a riveting psychological drama based on the play by Tennessee Williams, with a libretto by Philip Littell. Directed by Michael Yergin, the set has a big, winding staircase, with wrought iron railings and a balcony upstairs. The downstairs is the Kowalsky apartment, with the main room and bedroom and offstage bathroom which is a central part of the action, but unseen. The dissonant opening sets the stage for a rather psychotic experience all the way around. We have a lilting melody with jazz rhythms as Blanche puts a paper lantern over the light bulb in the bedroom while she and Mitch get acquainted. Stanley is infuriated and breaks up the poker game in the kitchen, and strikes Stella. Stanley comes home the next morning and, while leaning against the refrigerator in the kitchen, overhears Blanche in the bedroom telling Stella how common and ugly he is. When they go out, he and Blanche stand staring at each other against a haunting tuba solo. Stella runs and jumps in Stanley's arms as the act ends.
A frantic brass prelude of mostly tuba and trumpet opens Act 2. Blanche and Mitch see their salvation in each other. She tries to appear virtuous to him, but, while waiting for him after Stella and Stanley leave, she half-heartedly tries to seduce the paperboy. We have dark rippling patterns of light to symbolize the rain, along with the deterioration of Blanche's mind. We reach a shattering intensity as Blanche sings of her dead husband and how he killed himself.
A darkly melancholy prelude opens the third act. Stanley has found out about Blanche's immediate past and has told everybody. When Mitch confronts her she tells him that magic is what she tries to give to people. Renee Fleming's Blanche absorbs us in her loneliness, desolation, and ultimate defeat. As her mind comes completely unhinged, we have fire and death as an orange glow envelopes the stage. In the final scene Mitch stares forlornly from the poker table, back to the bedroom as preparations are made to take Blanche to the asylum. Anthony Dean Griffey is a compelling presence as Mitch. You desperately want him to go to Blanche and sweep her away, but he confronts Stanley instead as Blanche walks resignedly off stage and fades into the distance.
Rodney Gilfrey is a stupendous Stanley. He's not so much evil, as crude and ignorant. He sees Blanche as breaking up his marriage. He attacks her in her most vulnerable place, probably not realizing the extent of the damage he's doing. If he does, he doesn't care, because he's simply saving his own marriage. Once Blanche has been crushed, he doesn't gloat or anything, but simply goes back to his poker game as if she never existed. Renee Fleming is a tremendous Blanche. She's had everyone dear to her die. She lost the plantation, went to live at The Flamingo, and got run out of town for having an affair with a 17 year old boy. She's trying to maintain some sort of dignity, and she does it in part by putting Stanley down. He's an animal, crude, "sub-human." She's better than that, as is Stella. Stella has also let that on to Stanley, but he has made her common, like him. Blanche is the big loser, though, but she maintains her dignity to the end as she walks off the stage and just trails away. Andre Previn conducts his own composition in this searing world premiere production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the San Francisco Opera. It continues with cast changes Thursday and Sunday, October 8th and 11th.