Review: OCM delivers memorable American opera with ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Blanche Dubois has mysteriously lost her job as a high school teacher as well as her family’s once-grand estate in Laurel, Mississippi, and suddenly penniless she has no one to turn to but her younger sister Stella, who lives in New Orleans in a working-class life with her husband Stanley Kowalski, who turns out to be Blanche’s nemesis. Blanche lives in a realm of genteel, half-lit make-believe, but her world comes crashing down in the face of Stanley’s glaring lights and animal directness. She says, “Real? Who wants real? I want magic!” But for Stanley, Blanche’s theatricality is just lies and fakery.
The Opera Company of Middlebury is celebrating its 15th year of continuous operation by presenting its first modern, American opera. The excitement and joy in the lobby of every performance by this company suggests these folks know they have a treat in store: This company has always delivered, putting on excellent productions with a high degree of polish, bringing young professional singers from around the country and assembling an orchestra of the best players in the region — and beyond. OCM is without a doubt a crown jewel in Vermont’s cultural offerings and has attracted national attention. And here it is, in Middlebury.
Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” was adapted as an opera by composer André Previn with a libretto by Philip Littell (the play is virtually intact); it premiered 20 years ago in San Francisco with renowned soprano Renée Fleming in the starring role. In Blanche, Williams created one of theater’s greatest roles, a kind of Hamlet-sized challenge for women: a character full of layered complexities, inner demons — and a history. Previn translated this into an equally daunting role for a soprano lucky to take it on: she is onstage almost the length of the opera. The drama gains steam as her conflict with Stanley intensifies and climaxes in their harrowing, fated “date.” Previn’s jazz-tinged music follows the drama faithfully and allows the power of Williams’ play to grip the spectator. There are several attractive arias, some ravishing passages and felicitous musical-dramatic effects.
The four leading roles were cast with actor-singers each embodying those roles memorably, creating four very distinct characters. Stanley, a role etched in the collective memory forever by Marlon Brando’s epochal performance in the 1951 film, was sung by Gregory Gerbrandt, a tall, strapping blonde hunk of a man, whose physicality is every inch Stanley Kowalski. Gerbrandt’s vocal performance captured perfectly the character’s masculinity, tenderness and brutality, and even managed to bring beauty to some of the lyrical lines. This is the baritone’s third time portraying Stanley, and he clearly owns the role. His friend Mitch, who’s thinking of marrying Blanche, was sung by James Flora; his gleaming tenor voice shone like a beacon in the surrounding dark and he delivered his sweet aria with refreshing honesty. Soprano Cree Carico brought to the role of Stella, Blanche’s sister, a lively and nuanced interpretation; she gets to express openly the sensuality she shares with her repressed sister.
Meredith Lustig as Blanche scored a triumph: This is her first time singing this massive role, and one hopes she will have more opportunities to add layers to what is already a fine vocal and acting performance. She was most winning in those moments when her voice embodied that vulnerability that makes Blanche so sympathetic, but also in those passages where she is either coquettishly flirting or compulsively seducing. Lustig paced herself well, delivering not only wistful arias but also scenes of traumatizing memories, requiring reserves of power. Kudos.
The four smaller roles were each also strongly characterized: Olga Perez Flora as the supportive upstairs neighbor; Joshua Collier as her brash poker-playing husband; Cameron Steinmetz as the funnily hapless newspaper boy; and Sara Petrocelli as the eerie, phantasmagorical Mexican woman selling flowers on the street.
   Gregory Gerbrandt, second from left, plays Stanley Kowalski — at times tender, at times brutal — in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Town Hall Theater this Thursday and Saturday. Our reviewer says Gerbrandt, joined here by Carlos Velez, Joshua Collier and James Flora, brings beauty to some of the lyrical lines of this opera and his physicality captures every inch of the role.
Independent photos/Trent Campbell
For this production OCM assembled its largest instrumental ensemble yet: 29 players arrayed along the back of the stage, allowing for an unimpeded connection between the audience and the stage action. Leading the orchestra in his second OCM production as music director was Michael Sakir, who shaped the score and the flow of the drama with easy authority, and drew a stunning performance from the clearly engaged players.
Doug Anderson, the artistic director and founder of OCM, has a farm of rabbits to pull out of his stage director’s hat: whether rollicking comedies or searing drama, he always comes up with brilliant ideas and knows when to push and pull, and when to just let a work speak for itself. In this production, he again demonstrated his uncanny ability to elicit superb acting from his singers, and to create engrossing theater. The OCM staff’s set, costume and lighting design are each impressive: Streetcar is a complex, intricate show and every detail is executed with panache.
The opening night audience clearly hung on every word, rapt in the drama and music, and gave a rousing reception to the cast. The production opened on June 1, with performances on June 3, 7 and 9 at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. The opera is in English with supertitles (but you won’t need them much at all).
If you enjoy theater, you owe it to yourself to attend one of the two remaining performances — this Thursday and Saturday nights. This is theater on a very high level. If you enjoy opera, but are unsure about “modern” opera, throw caution to the winds and live it up. You should check out what everyone is raving about. The Opera Company of Middlebury is a treasure in our midst, not to be taken for granted.
Jorge Martin is an award-winning composer whose operas have been performed around the country; “Before Night Falls” was premiered in Fort Worth, Texas, and was most recently presented by Florida Grand Opera in Miami, the opera was commercially recorded. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra has commissioned him three times. He has written major works in a large variety of media, but he concentrates on vocal works. He lives in Middlebury.

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