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Sometimes, the Play Isn't the Thing

Andre Previn's score is bland and derivative; Philip Littell's libretto reduces the play to a skeleton; Colin Graham's staging is busy and hectic. Still, a fair portion of the blame for the failure of the San Francisco Opera's A Streetcar Named Desire, whose premiere on September 19 was ushered in with hoopla of Richter-scale proportions - and cheered lustily by a gala audience obviously needing to justify having shelled out $1,500 for the top ticket - lies not with the above, but with the company's general director, Lotfi Mansouri, who has proclaimed, as a litany published worldwide in press interviews, that an operatic Streetcar has been his dream for nearly 20 years. That's a long time to be as deluded as Mansouri has been on this particular matter.

What anyone hears when under the spell of this extraordinary play is music itself, not virtual but real. Not only is Tennessee Williams' 1947 tragedy an intense, lyrical unfolding, with full-scale verbal arias and ensembles for characters both major and minor (the "flores para los muertos" woman, for example, with her brief walk-through like a Wagnerian annunciation), but Williams' published text specifies an almost nonstop undercurrent of offstage music, later expanded upon but not desecrated by Alex North's score for the 1951 movie version. To impose upon this rich, overpowering design a layer of overt operatic transmogrification - even if the Previn/Littell creation were any good, which it isn't - becomes at the very least an exercise in redundancy. According to Mansouri, he had previously dangled the Streetcar project before Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who turned him down; no fools they.

Hobbled by the Williams estate's insistence that he add no words of his own to the original text, Littell's contribution is mostly an act of jettisoning large chunks of that text, drastically reducing the play without the chance to add any kind of "operatic" enhancement - an ensemble for Stanley's pals, perhaps, or an extended love/hate duet for Stanley and Stella to explore their steamy relationship. Blanche's several extended speeches, which in the play hover at the edge of music, make the easy transition into full-scale arias. These moments, too, form the least-worst of Previn's ambitious - and ultimately overreaching - musical setting: from a jagged, frazzled recitation as Blanche recounts the deaths of the folks back at Belle Reve and the loss of the property itself, to a serene folk song as she envisions, her mind unhinged but now at peace, her last days on her imaginary lover's phantom yacht.

As Los Angeles concertgoers remember all too well, Previn has built an up-and-down reputation dealing with other people's music on orchestral podiums, and it shows here; his score veers widely among current and recent musical styles, from an attempt at blues to honor the play's New Orleans setting (in the sanitized pseudo-jazz style familiar from some of his recent recordings) to the surge of Benjamin Britten's ocean via a bit of Mahler at his most purple. What is most fatally lacking, however, is a musical point of view to shine any kind of light on the greatness of Williams' play - and, thus, to justify this misguided effort to drag it into the alien atmosphere of overstuffed, overpriced grand opera. Previn himself conducted the first four performances; on opening night he and the orchestra were not yet eye-to-eye. Same old Andre.

On Michael Yeargan's generic New Orleans set, Colin Graham, a practiced hand at putting over problematic new operas, creates a generic operatic busyness to match the generic undefinedness of Previn's score. Thomas J. Munn's projections serve as pictorial supertitles. Blanche sings of Stanley as a throwback to the age of the apes, and, by golly, the stage is engulfed in jungle foliage.

As Blanche I heard the fast-rising Renee Fleming, who by current estimate can do no wrong; the strain that came across in her performance, however, was not that of a bygone belle coping with decay, but of a greatly admired soprano coping with tragic accents the music would not let her feel. Rodney Gilfry was similarly cast adrift by the facelessness of his music; in a role eternally overshadowed by the image of its first interpreter, his Stanley did, at least, make a praiseworthy stab at not being Brando. Anthony Dean Griffey's lumbering Mitch and Elizabeth Futral's rather chirpy Stella were as okay as the music demands. The opera runs through October 11, with several cast changes.

Streetcar has already been booked into the San Diego Opera in 2000; Opera Pacific is reportedly nibbling. Operatic honchos from several other companies, including Los Angeles and Chicago, looked in at San Francisco last week, along with a 140-member corps of the international musical press. The world hungers for the Great American Opera; the mistake was in trying to extract it from the Great American Play.

Across Grove Street, the torrid love affair between Michael Tilson Thomas and his adopted city continues apace, with the much-made-over Davies Symphony Hall serving as nuptial bed. At last week's concert you could, in fact, have made an interesting case for the striking resemblance between the hall and MTT himself: the one festooned with acoustical chachkas (a virtual forest of suspended clear-plastic panels that go up and down, more reflecting panels on the sides and on the stage itself), the other in a reading of Mahler's First Symphony similarly encumbered (interpretive quirks, minor moments overemphasized, subtle contrasts brutalized). The sound in the hall is impressively loud and in-your-face, and those, too, are the words for the San Francisco Symphony's much adored conductor, widely if not universally acclaimed as the right guy in the right place.

Credit where due: Tilson Thomas has led his orchestra on some interesting and important excursions into areas where few others care to venture. His program two weeks ago also included three American works. One was a rightly admired classic, Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with James Agee's words beautifully sung by Heidi Grant Murphy as a last-minute substitute for Sylvia McNair. The others were novelties very much worthwhile: Charles Ives' amazing From the Steeples and the Mountains, a venture into dissonance and clangor scored for nothing but brass and bells, and Henry Cowell's Music 1957, an extended work for huge orchestra (including anvils and tom-toms), an extraordinary if at times exasperating interweaving of great tangles of complex rhythms with folksy tunes of almost embarrassing innocence.

Cowell grew up in the Bay Area, antagonized his first audiences there while still in his teens, served time in San Quentin on a trumped-up perversion charge that today would probably get him elected mayor, and - even when later living in New York - composed music as innately Californian as any resident or visitor before his time or since. Since taking on the San Francisco post, Tilson Thomas has labored nobly to restore the Cowell legacy, which is copious and uneven; among his many other good deeds, this alone would be enough to assure his ticket to heaven.