Because under the right circumstances, when the theatrical stars align and the ingredients come together to spark the right kind of live-performance magic, opera can soar higher and louder.
The “new” Fresno Grand Opera — a partnership with Modesto’s Townsend Opera — had an auspicious debut Sunday afternoon at the Saroyan Theatre with a searing production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The direction by Brad Dalton, considered the world’s foremost stage director of Andre Previn’s 1995 adaptation of the classic Tennessee Williams play, upped the emotional ante. And a powerhouse performance in the leading role of Blanche DuBois by Carrie Hennessey — whose acting prowess brought to life a character of riveting complexity — made me pause and consider anew this well-known tale and what it has to say about women, loss and the way that life can simply unravel.
Casual opera-goers used to the “distance” that traditional opera often puts between itself and American audiences in terms of language, setting, time period and acting style likely needed some time to adjust to the intimacy and impact of “Streetcar.” It’s easy to forget when listening to singers gushing forth in beautiful Italian that opera is often about the mundane and the messy. The first act, in which we meet the destitute Blanche, who has traveled to New Orleans to live with her sister, Stella (a strong and resonant Kiera Duffy), and brother-in-law, Stanley (a sturdy Dan Kempson), takes some time to set the scene. Blanche prides herself on her Southern decorum and charm (which we soon learn has been crumbling over the years). As we negotiate her back story and absorb the details of Stella and Stanley’s passionate and dysfunctional relationship — all by setting Williams’ words (in English, of all things!) to Previn’s moody and often gorgeous music — it can take some time making the transition from the realistic to the operatic.
But as the second and (triumphant and profound) third acts progress, this production settled into a mood and tempo that was nearly hypnotic.
Hennessey gave us a Blanche that let us burrow into her character’s soul, even into the darkest crevices. The role is one of the most celebrated in American literature for a reason, and Hennessey, using a one-two punch of music and drama, made it resonate in a way that equaled the finest stage performances of the part I’ve seen. Her fretting about losing her looks coincided with an even deeper loss of control. I felt sadder at Blanche’s fate than I ever did before, and yet I also felt as if I’d been drawn more deeply into her interior life.
James Callon, as Blanche’s fickle suitor, Mitch, helped anchor some of the production’s most powerful scenes, both in terms of vocals and acting. The moment when Blanche begs him not to remove the paper lantern she has placed on the tenement apartment’s bare light bulb — a move on her part to “soften” the harshness of her existence — was brilliant.)
It was exciting to see the talented Sharmay Musacchio, a graduate of Roosevelt High School of the Arts who has performed with New York City Opera and Los Angeles Opera, on a local stage as the neighbor Mrs. Hubbell. An able supporting cast that included Robert Norman, Phil Strangio, Hillari Delgado and Jim Johnson — along with Tyler Kersten in an affecting performance as the Young Collector — all added to the strength of the production. The look and feel of the show — from the (rented) atmospheric one-unit set and Erik Vose’s superb lighting design to Tara Roe’s period costumes — hit the right marks of professionalism.
The Fresno Grand Opera Orchestra, conducted with sensitivity by Ryan Murray, was robust as it played Previn’s jazz-infused score. But it never overpowered the singers.
Still, the thing that really sticks with me about this “Streetcar” — besides the depth of fine acting — is Dalton’s stage direction. Time and again it elevated the material. One blistering image I won’t soon forget: the pivotal moment when Stanley forces himself upon Blanche. Flopped on the bed, the characters froze just before the violation begins. I expected a blackout just a beat later, but Dalton held us in the scene, the lights swelling with a sickening red hue as the actors remained frozen, long past you’d expect the moment to endure. I wager that nearly every stomach in the Saroyan churned just a little at the discomfort of being stuck in that sliver of time. It was masterful.
If Fresno Grand Opera can maintain that intensity in the seasons to come, it’ll be an exciting thing for our community.
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