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The patent absurdity of Stanley Kowalski singing about beer and poker in a pure baritone was Andre Previn's biggest challenge when he decided to base his first opera on A Streetcar Named Desire. "I always thought Streetcar was an opera that was just missing the music," he's said, and in terms of melodramatic plot of course he's right. But pleasure in opera comes from high-flown artifice; pleasure in Streetcar comes from its raw and overpowering realism. They don't mix well. Opposites like that need a provocative blend, and since Previn decided against using much jazz in the score, the music isn't it. His composition puts emphasis on the artifice side -- on Blanche's character, with bland and formal melodies threatened only now and then by a burst of jazz -- so the opera comes off as a prettified, music-box dream of Streetcar rather than a powerful new vision of the play.

The story, briefly, has Blanche Dubois coming to live with her sister, Stella, who lives with her plant-worker husband Stanley in a deteriorating New Orleans flat. Blanche is the fading and fragile image of the Old South, full of airs and graces, but incapable of managing her dirty desires. Now, Previn's opera seems to identify with Blanche to the extent of suffering from exactly the same problem: It doesn't know what to do about Stanley. He has too much sweaty gutter-realism. Lines like "We've been drinkin' beer" are ridiculous when sung in an opera house, but in Streetcar it has to be done, and neither Previn's score nor Philip Littell's libretto finds a suitable way to handle them. The melodies are neither here nor there, and the fact that Stanley, of the four main characters, doesn't get to sing an aria suggests that Previn and Littell both tried to solve the Stanley problem by hoping it would go away.

The challenge shouldn't be above Previn. He knows his jazz, after all. Why couldn't he take cues from Kurt Weill on how to make an opera gritty? The Streetcar score thirsts for excellent jazz; in fact one of the show's best scenes has Blanche in a dark and broken-lighted funk just before she gives in to Stanley, singing about her moonlight swim over a slow wash of horns. And when she does give in, the orchestra finds a strong and muscular clashing of styles that succeeds brilliantly. Other good scenes include Stella's eloquent humming in the morning after makeup sex with Stanley -- the transported way she twirls into his arms brings something to the script that's never been seen before -- and Blanche's final aria is also nice: The music's brittle formality works well in a sad reverie about the sea. But the other three songs feel like filler, and Williams' lines of raw prose remain so intact you sometimes wonder why the players bother to sing them at all.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Live from Berkeley, It's the NYC Ballet
Square Dance, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Barber Violin Concerto, The Concert. Performed by the New York City Ballet. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus, Sept. 22-27.

Balletomanes came to be dazzled by the New York City Ballet, and most left laughing. If there was a complaint to be lodged, it's that the second night's program, which ended comically with Jerome Robbins' sly, delightful The Concert, didn't fully showcase the company's famously pyrotechnic virtuosity. What it did show, however, is how ballet master Peter Martins fits into the company's daunting history, now that dance-making giants George Balanchine and Robbins are no longer alive to create new work and oversee the old. The prognosis is good. Martins has endured grumbling about his stewardship of the company since he shifted gears from principal dancer to director 15 years ago, but NYCB's two-week stay offered Balanchine and Robbins works in good shape, as well as Martins work that held its own.

Like 1954's Western Symphony, the Russian-born Balanchine's valentine to the cowboy culture of his adopted country, Square Dance bends the folk idiom into classical dance. Created in 1957, Square Dance eschews the folk trappings in favor of a neoclassic approach. Balanchine set his square dance formations to Corelli and Vivaldi, and split-second directional changes and waltzy pairings are the only obvious folk concessions. Most of the fancy footwork -- a barrage of echappes, emboites, and entrechats, the small, quick crisscrossing jumps that evoke the beating of hummingbird wings when they're impeccably executed, as they were here -- looks less like a hoedown than patterns in a classroom exercise (albeit a hellishly tricky classroom exercise).

Damian Woetzel and Wendy Whelan delivered the most technically thrilling piece of the evening, Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, blending artistry and athleticism in ways that quickly exhaust a writer's store of superlatives. Alone, Woetzel powered through triple-jump and triple-turn combinations, and scoured the periphery of the stage with sweeping coupe-jete turns, snapping to perfect unwavering finishes each time. Against Woetzel's reserved partnering, Whelan projected a radiant lyricism, spiraling through fouette turns and diving dizzyingly into his arms.

Martins' Barber Violin Concerto is an engrossing enigma. Two couples -- barefoot modern dancers and a classical ballet duo -- dance separate variations, meet in the middle, then swap partners. What could be interpreted as modernism's influence on classicism and vice versa could more cynically be read (between rumbling tympanies and the Graham-like angularity of the modern couple) as the old world meets the natives. Wendy Whelan's ice princess melted sensually, though, and Samantha Allen's playful clamor for Charles Askegard's attention paid off in a rolling pas de deux.

The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody) is Robbins at his theatrical best. It's a cleverly designed, generously physical comedy about music lovers who continually disrupt a piano recital with their own interpretation of the music. As he did with the Jets/Sharks rumble in West Side Story, Robbins makes expansive use of the space, sending dancers with umbrellas swirling around the stage like cumulus clouds. It's hard not to miss Robbins after giggling over the buggy antics of his baseball bat-wielding concertgoers, but it's reassuring to know that his work's been left in capable hands.


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