|Brittany Nickell, Abigail Shapiro, Timothy Murray, and Anna Dugan (photo by Carol Rosegg)
We have not read it but we well recall the 1988 movie which we have seen more than once. The scandalous tale of dissolute pre-Revolution France also inspired several stage adaptations, the most notable being that by Christopher Hampton, several films, and a ballet which we wish we had seen.
In 1992, the San Francisco Opera gave the commission to Conrad Susa and the opera was presented with Thomas Hampson as Valmont, Renee Fleming as Madame de Tourvel, and Frederica von Stade as Madame de Merteuil. It has been rarely produced since then but was seen in New York about seven years ago, when DiCapo Opera gave it a production that critics found static and boring. This production was anything but static and boring.
The story is a cynical one, the tale of a malicious pair of aristocrats who get their jollies from seducing and manipulating others. We are told nothing of the background of Vicomte de Valmont to explain his need to deflower virgins and seduce married women. As far as his "friend with benefits", Madame de Merteuil, our only clue is that she feels shortchanged in her role as a woman. She protests that men get what they want while women take what they can get.
Soprano Anna Dugan is splendid in this role, as is her counterpart baritone Timothy Murray. They managed to hide their sinister motives behind a veneer of courtly behavior, plotting under the watchful gaze of their fellow aristocrats. The opera opens at the grand estate of Madame de Rosemonde outside Paris. Mezzo Noragh Devlin sang and acted this role to perfection. She loves her nephew Valmont but suspects he is there more to do mischief than to see her.
Valmont is preoccupied by the seduction of a pious married woman Madame de Tourvel, convincingly played by soprano Abigail Shapiro. However, he is persuaded to do Merteuil's bidding by the promise of sexual favors.
Merteuil wants revenge against a lover who discarded her by getting Valmont to deflower the man's intended bride, the 15-year-old Cécile de Volanges, fresh out of a convent, and marvelously portrayed by soprano Janet Todd.
Meanwhile, Cécile has fallen in love with her harp instructor, the Chevalier de Danceny, convincingly played by Kiwi tenor Oliver Sewell. Her mother Madame de Volanges (the fine soprano Brittany Nickell) must break up this romance because Danceny is a commoner and the intended husband is a well to do aristocrat. She is worried about the wrong fox in this hen house!
Merteuil pretends to be Cécile's friend and confidant but betrays her and takes Danceny as her lover. Valmont rapes Cécile under the guise of instructing her in the art of love, and simulates friendship for Danceny.
Madame de Tourvel struggles against her urges but, religious woman that she is, sees the possibility of redeeming Valmont and he plays along until she weakens. He then cruelly dumps her under the tutelage of Merteuil who writes his lines for him. "It is not my fault", he keeps repeating, sounding every bit like our antique MacIntosh Blueberry when it crashed.
We have given enough spoilers but you can imagine how unfortunate the ending will be for all concerned.
Dona D. Vaughn's direction could not have been any better. It is too bad that DiCapo's production was perceived as static. This production was anything but. Erhard Rom's set comprised decorated vertical panels that slid from side to side, creating a lavish drawing room, various bedrooms, a woodland walk, and a convent. Several scenes took place side by side. For example, Merteuil might be writing a letter at her desk on one side with Valmont reading it aloud in his own room on the other side.
Costume designer Tracy Dorman outdid herself as one can see in the above photo. Each design revealed something about the character and the color palette matched the season of the year in which the act took place. The overall effect, complimented by Dave Bova's wig and makeup design, achieved verisimilitude.
Since this is an opera, we must discuss the music. Frankly, Susa's music did nothing for us; but one must take our opinion with the following grain of salt. We rarely enjoy late 20th c. music. Susa's music is mostly tonal but there was no beauty in it; there was power and discordancy but it all sounded the same.
The libretto by Philip Littell (who never wrote an opera libretto before) comprised dialogue in rhymed couplets (good) but came across as doggerel (bad). The recitativi supporting the dialogue were jagged and unmusical. There were plenty coloratura vocalises but they seemed to be randomly inserted without characterological justification.
Perhaps the English language does not inspire beautiful phrases of music. As a matter of fact, we conferred with our opera-loving companion during intermission regarding who might have created a better opera from this story. It should have been in French, inasmuch as the story is so quintessentially Gallic. Gounod? Massenet?
The problem with the vocal line was that the tessitura was uncomfortably high. The singers handled it beautifully but it is not the most attractive range to listen to for two hours. It might appeal to those who enjoyed Thomas Ades' Tempest, which we did not.
Interestingly, the English diction was far better than expected, credit going to a lot of hard work on the part of the singers and Diction Coach Kathryn LaBouff who made sure every vicious word counted. Happily, there were surtitles in case one missed something.
Valmont and Merteuil each had a sort of aria, or rather a monologue, in which they explained something about themselves. But the best parts musically were the trios and duets in which the various voices balanced beautifully.
George Manahan led the orchestra through a reduction of Susa's score created by composer-arranger Randol Bass. We can only imagine how this dense and difficult music must have sounded before it was reduced.
The final scene made use of a wonderful chorus, under the direction of Miriam Charney. Brittany Bellacosa portrayed Emilie, Michael Gracco played Monsieur Bertrand, and servants were played by Amy Yarham, Christian Thurston, and Ashley Alden. Father Anselm was Robert Orbach.
This same superb cast will perform the Sunday matinée and a different cast will perform Friday evening. Having heard some of the Friday night cast at the opera preview, let us reassure you that their vocal and dramatic skills are just as fine.
(c) meche kroop