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Thomas Gunther, left, as Stanley Kowalski and Julie Adams as Blanche DuBois in the Merola Opera production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

SAN FRANCISCO -- "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a vehicle that goes off the tracks, a lot. Based on Tennessee Williams' seminal stage play, André Previn's opera is musically and dramatically inconsistent, a patchwork. It strains to convey the powder-keg atmosphere of the original. It never washes away our memories of Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) and Vivien Leigh (as Blanche DuBois) in the 1951 film adaptation.

Those criticisms have been around since 1998, when San Francisco Opera premiered "Streetcar," showcasing soprano Renée Fleming in the role of Blanche, the Southern belle whose aristocratic pretenses give way to madness. So let's get on with it. To kick off its 2014 Summer Festival, Merola Opera is presenting a new "Streetcar" production this weekend -- it opened Thursday at Everett Middle School in the Mission -- and there are good reasons to see it, starting with soprano Julie Adams.

She is one hell of a Blanche. Her voice is plush and supple. She slides up to whispered apex notes, pierces them, then slithers back down. In Act 2, she sings an aria titled "Soft people have got to shimmer and glow," where her voice reflects the iridescent colors of the orchestration. It's lovely to hear.

This is the act in which Previn quits lurching about -- a flash of Barber, then Strauss, then Penderecki, then noir film music, as if he's suffering from ADHD -- and establishes a musical voice.

It's post-Impressionist and jazzy in a late '50s way. It conveys the sad sultriness of the New Orleans setting, and Adams, also a convincing actor, lets Blanche unspool here. She seduces a Young Collector (tenor Mingjie Lei) from the local newspaper, and she confesses pieces of her tawdry past to her sister Stella (soprano Adelaide Boedecker) and goody-goody boyfriend Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (tenor Casey Candebat).

Boedecker is another reason to see the production. Just as Adams' layered voice conveys elements of Blanche -- her perfumes and airs, her fragility and dissolution -- Boedecker's gets at the essence of Stella. Her singing is clear, direct and invigorating -- beautiful, without asking for attention. That's Stella, who has left behind her upscale youth to marry Kowalski (baritone Thomas Gunther), an auto parts supply man. They struggle financially. They have good sex. You know the story.

Gunther's baritone is muscular and appealing, though it lacks that smoldering Kowalski edge. There's not enough darkness -- enough evil -- in his voice and depiction, even as Stanley picks at Blanche, exposing her lies, indiscretions and sexual secrets, and sends her spinning toward a pathetic end. As "Mitch," Blanche's would-be beau, Candebat hams it up -- there's too much Gomer Pyle here -- but he sings with striking authority in the final act, once he's smartened up about Blanche.

The Merola team clearly believes in "Streetcar" and would like to see it established in the repertory.

Director Jose Maria Condemi (who next takes the production to Opera Santa Barbara and Kentucky Opera) squeezes about as much juice out of it as he can. Peter Grunberg's reduction of the score (from Previn's 70-piece orchestra to a 40-piece ensemble, conducted by Mark Morash) allows the cast to ring out. Morash and the orchestra did an exceptional job, tackling this difficult, non-stop, three-hour score.

Steven C. Kemp's look-through sets effectively evoke the Kowalskis' claustrophobic working-class neighborhood, as do Kristi Johnson's mid-century costumes.

In the end, though, all the operatic triage in the world can't correct the fact that Previn and librettist Philip Littell are out-matched by the original play -- and by Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, among the most complex figures in modern literature. They prove too formidable.

Also in the end, there's no ignoring the fact that Merola consistently presents excellent young singers, including in secondary roles. As the Young Collector, Lei showed off a sweet lyric tenor. As Eunice Hubbell, the Kowalskis' upstairs neighbor, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet sang with a full bright sound and much warmth. As the Mexican Woman, who peddles flowers while Blanche fantasizes about death, mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandani dazzled: her voice was positively fragrant.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Merola Opera Program

Presenting "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Music by Andre Previn, libretto by Philip Littell
When: 2 p.m., Saturday
Where: Everett Middle School Auditorium, 450 Church St., San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$60; 415-864-3330, merola.org
Also: See the above website for details on the rest of Merola's 2014 Summer Festival, including "Don Giovanni"