Catch this Streetcar if you can

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Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Renee Fleming

The remaining three performances of A Streetcar Named Desire at Lyric Opera are "sold out," but you might still be able to score a seat. Try calling the box office, where tickets turn up for resale when the original buyer can't make it.

Or, if you're a lot more flexible than, say, Stanley Kowalski, you could show up early and attempt to snag one from a patron in the outer lobby. There's a good chance that won't work, but if it does, it'll be worth the effort.

Here's why:

There's nothing "semi" about this "semi-staged" production of Andre Previn's opera based on Tennessee Williams's classic play. It doesn't have sets—and doesn't need them. A row of slat-backed chairs, a table, a bed, and a trunk are all it takes for Previn's rich orchestral music and this cast to create the gritty world of delusional Southern "aristocrat" Blanche DuBois; her sister, Stella; Stella's brutal working-class husband, Stanley; and Stanley's work buddy Mitch.

These are characters we know, in a familiar American story—such a rarity in opera. It resonates in a way that the usual European repertoire can't. A word of warning: boyish, beautiful Marlon Brando, playing hard guy in the 1951 film version was one thing; this is something else. Baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, bald, brazen, and bare chested during much of the proceedings, is an older and even more menacing Stanley.

We don't often get to see a diva in a role written specifically for her. Renee Fleming, as Blanche, is singing the stratospheric music Previn wrote with her in mind. He put her firmly at the center of the story. Judge for yourself whether she's too much the darling girl next door to be convincing as this desperate character, saddled with difficulties that go back to Williams's conception of her.

The supporting players are superb. Creamy soprano Susanna Phillips is exactly right as the beleaguered Stella, and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, here playing mama's boy Mitch (Blanche's last hope for marriage), is a gifted singer with acting chops to match. He originated this role when the opera premiered in San Francisco in 1998.

You've never seen the whole orchestra on the Lyric stage before, or heard them so clearly. Another reason there aren't any sets is that the orchestra is onstage behind the singers (like a chorus), barely separated from them by a low divider. This seems appropriate, because Previn gave nearly all the real music to the instruments. Where the vocalists are basically talking in singing voice, or singing with the natural intonations of speech, the orchestral music is a rich, eclectic mix with the emotional punch of a film score, a medium Previn worked in a lot.

It's a potent reminder of what we owe to women's lib. Both the story and its reception. In a frequently cited New York Times review of the San Francisco Opera premiere, critic Bernard Holland wrote this: "Williams recognized in Blanche the nightmare of nearly every middle- or upper-class Southern male. We look at her onstage and see the familiar neediness, veiled hostility and sense of unreality that have inhabited our own mothers, sisters, wives and lovers."

Performances are at 7:30 PM tonight and Wednesday, April 3, and 2 PM Saturday, April 6, at Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker. Another option: there may be tickets available for the general public for a reduced-price "Student Night" performance with a different cast on Friday, April 5. Call 312-332-2244.

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