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You Can See Opera's Two Greatest Stars In Los Angeles This Weekend

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No one ever seems to mention the opera in their lists of the best things about Los Angeles. But, really, there aren't a lot of cities in the U.S. or any place else where you can go see opera's two greatest stars, Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming, on consecutive days, as you could have on Saturday and Sunday this past weekend, and can again this coming weekend, in two L.A. Opera productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (Throw in Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky's recital this Thursday at the Chandler and the Philharmonic's staged "Così fan Tutte" conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at Disney Concert Hall over the next two weekends, and you've got a strong argument that, for a moment at least, L.A. really is once again the opera capital of the world.)

Anyone trying to identify a common theme between Jules Massenet's late 19th-century erotic tragedy "Thaïs" and Andre Previn's 1997 adaptation of "A Streetcar Named Desire" might suggest that both operas focus on women who end up destroyed as they desperately seek to abandon their previously oversexed lives. Beyond that loosely shared story element, though, there is very little similarity between the two works. What does unite these two productions from L.A. Opera are extraordinary performances by their central superstars, unusually strong supporting casts, and perfectly off-idiomatic stagings that significantly enhance our appreciation of their respective musical messages.

Only next to a singer of Domingo's legendary stature, of course, can a soprano in the title role of Thaïs be referred to as part of the supporting cast. We praised Nino Machaidze here a couple years ago for her lead performance in "Romeo et Juliette," and after a slightly shaky start on opening night, she was in fine form again as the brashly sensual courtesan who is recruited onto a new path of religious repentance and abstinence by the ascetic monk Athanaël, played by Domingo.

Singing exclusively baritone rather than tenor parts in Los Angeles for the past few years now, the 73-year-old Domingo sounds even more at home in this lower register than he has previously. And his legendary acting chops and commanding stage presence remain entirely undiminished. Obsessed with bringing Thaïs into the fold of absolutist Christian devotion, Domingo's Athanaël reveals his underlying romantic passion for the new convert to us long before the character recognizes it in himself.

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Director Nicola Raab and scenery and costume designer Johan Engels have visually resituated the opera from ancient Alexandria into a belle epoque European setting, where sumptuous decadence reigns in the world that Thaïs initially resides in and a dead-souled desert surrounds the religious order she later enters. By incongruously dressing the chorus of monks in foppish top hats and capes, while their colleague Athanaël himself is clad in rags and tatters, the production team also shrewdly lays the tragic fate that ultimately befalls Massenet's protagonists at the feet of well-organized moral hypocrisy.

Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" is many nasty things, but he is not a moral hypocrite. In both Tennessee Williams's great American play and the magnificent modern opera that composer Previn and librettist Philip Littell have made of that play, Stanley (Ryan McKinney) is pure, unregenerate Freudian id and an existential threat to the well-being of anyone he gets too close to. He is also purely irresistible to his wife Stella (Pasadena's own Stacey Tappan), who speaks out weakly as he progressively degrades and finally demolishes her visiting sister Blanche Dubois (Fleming), but she never does anything to threaten or stop him.Previn composed "Streetcar" expressly for Fleming to sing the role of Blanche, and she has reprised the role several times in various cities since its San Francisco premiere, but this L.A. Opera production marks the opera's Southern California debut. And though it may not be quite as historic an occasion as the company's offering of "Einstein on the Beach" this past fall, the opportunity to see this "Streetcar" strikes us as similarly unique.

Fleming herself is on stage for all but a few scenes over the course of the opera, and her Blanche is every bit the iconic alcoholic nervous wreck of Williams's play. Audiences familiar with the play and the movie might be jarred initially by some of the different emotional emphases that Previn's score infuses into the work, but it really doesn't take long to get used to the idea that this is not the Blanche of Vivian Leigh and her imitators, but an entirely new and unforgettable characterization of Fleming's own construction.

Unlike many contemporary operas, "Streetcar" contains several distinct arias as well as a duet between Blanche and Mitch (Anthony Dean Griffey, also reprising a role he played in the original "Streetcar" opera production), which Fleming herself has described as the opera's centerpiece. For our money, though, the high point is Blanche's third-act solo turn, "I Want Magic," which Fleming, in prime thrilling voice on Sunday afternoon, affirmed is no less her signature piece than any aria by Dvorak or Verdi (or Massenet, for that matter).

This "Streetcar" also featured one of the best supporting casts we've seen at L.A. Opera in recent years (and L.A. Opera often has quite good supporting casts). McKinney's Stanley doesn't entirely come across as the "ape" that Blanche describes him as, but his menace does loom larger and larger as the opera continues and his singing is consistently strong. Tappan is a perfect, emotionally conflicted Stella, who loves her sister, but lives for the domineering brute she's married to, which she expresses in her own first-act aria, "I can hardly stand it when he's away." As Mitch, Griffey is every bit first the hopeful, then devastated, suitor whose own last chance for happiness in life evanesces with Blanche's demise. Victoria Livengood also makes a notable impression in the small role of the Kowalskis' neighbor Eunice.

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This L.A. Opera "Streetcar" is billed as a semi-staged production, but the spare scenic trappings appropriately frame the work's intense human drama. They also provide a nice contrast with the lavish, high-tech sets that dominate "Thaïs."

Domingo and Fleming—you can't go wrong choosing either one. Though if you can swing it, you'd be even better off not choosing.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" plays tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; "Thais" runs for five performances through June 7. Tickets to both productions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion available on laopera.org.