A Streetcar Named Desire | Opera AustraliaLeft - Yvonne Kenny. Cover - Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Yvonne Kenny. Photos - Jeff Busby

A play set to music does not an opera make. Most of the drama in this production is a direct result of the original work by Tennessee Williams and has little to do with any operatic techniques. There are no soaring arias to be had, which, considering the breadth of talent on stage, is a crying shame. Acclaimed soprano Yvonne Kenny (Blanche) barely has a chance to get out of the starting blocks.

Rather than take the play somewhere new, Andre Previn has given us a very literal adaptation. In so doing, the realistic dialogue becomes a yoke around the neck of the score and we are left listening to three and a half hours of recitative, waiting for the highs of arias that never materialise. Three and half hours of singing in this style is surely no mean feat for sopranos Kenny and Antoinette Halloran (Stella), whose voices are both stunning, but the monotony of it must surely be as frustrating to sing as it is to hear.

This Bruce Beresford directed production received critical acclaim and sell-out audiences in Sydney, which has left me wondering why. After the second interval, a line of ten or so seats in front of me remained unfilled, from what originally appeared to be a full house. And clearly there were more than a few disgruntled opera fans in the audience that remained: the night’s end saw no standing ovation, Kenny received only one or two “bravos”, and the audience left its seats with a distinct lack of a usual opening night buzz in the air.

So what went wrong? To quote Blanche Dubois “Who wants real? I know I don’t want it, I want magic.” There was too little magic last night. There were snores and coughs and shuffling of feet. My goose-bump-o-metre seemed to have broken and the three and a half hours felt awfully long. The production just never soared, not once.

There were, however, some great moments of tension, as one would expect from one of the 20th century's most powerful dramas about human desire and fantasy. Teddy Tahu Rhodes gave us a bristling Stanley, whose chemistry with Stella was powerfully believable. But what was desperately needed, what was lacking, was the push-pull of revulsion and desire between Blanche and Stanley. While Kenny’s voice was stunning, her Blanche was too reserved, particularly so during her ensuing madness, and the age gap between her and Rhodes was too great to maintain the tension the relationship requires. Stuart Skelton as Mitch and Halloran as Stella delivered the stand-out performances of the evening. Skelton’s voice is beautiful and Halloran delivers a touchingly naïve Stella, with a vocal and physical sweetness that makes her life and her choices all the more tragic.

Beresford’s inspired revolving set almost becomes another character in the production. It takes you from the crumbling exterior of the house to the living room to the bedroom in a matter of seconds, working much like a tracking shot in film does as the actors walk through the set while it revolves. The famous film director also uses film footage, projected onto the set itself, to nice effect. And Nigel Levings’ lighting design is inspired, lending the set a myriad of moods and creates great intimacy within such a spacious set.

And yet, these things were not enough to lift the production to anywhere near the heights it needed to go. Disgruntled Melbourne opera fans, sick of Gilbert and Sullivan, wanted something new. They got it, but whether they liked it is another matter.


Opera Australia presents
A Streetcar Named Desire
André Previn

Sung in English with surtitles

Director Bruce Beresford

Venue: State Theatre, the Arts Centre
Dates/Times: December 2, 8, 12 @ 7.30pm
Matinee: December 5 @ 1.00pm
Tickets: $55 - $229
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166 | www.opera-australia.org.au