“The Letter,” with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Terry Teachout, is adapted from a play by W. Somerset Maugham. It is touted by its creators as an “opera noir” in an apparent homage to the famous William Wyler film-noir-in-the-tropics that starred Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall.
This Santa Fe Opera commission is a world premiere – just the sort of thing that keeps jaded opera-goers visiting the New Mexico desert in August. The SFO’s formula of “one new work plus one rare work plus three familiar works” is just what keeps many of us coming, year after year. Even when the new work is a stinker and the rarity is not so rare or not so hot, this formula is what makes the SFO such an interesting company.
In the current case, the new opera proves highly enjoyable. The score is easily accessible (that is to say not avant-garde, serial, atonal or tonal minimalist). It is dramatic, full of feeling and melodic invention, and even quite lyrical, although many listeners are not likely to think so at first hearing. Composer Paul Moravec, however, often doubles his vocal line with instrumental accompaniment – a device which increases our awareness of melodic elements. The music fits the emotions and the actions neatly from beginning to end.
The drama itself, adapted from the play and not the movie, is deftly crafted by Terry Teachout, although certain literary metaphors (especially the one about being lost in the jungle) are corny and tiresome however reminiscent they be of some good things in the works of Benjamin Britten.
The author also misses a bet by not following the movie plot instead of the play. Nothing the play or opera can do will make the murderous femme fatale Leslie Crosbie sympathetic to us – so Bette Davis as chill-queen should have been the author’s model. The opening scene of the movie (and the play and the opera) sets the character and mood all too perfectly when Leslie murders her lover in cold blood – bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang – six shots in all, several into the already lifeless body.
The movie also contains a fabulously operatic scene that unfortunately does not make it into the opera: the face-to-face confrontation of Leslie Crosbie (La Davis) with her former lover’s Chinese mistress (a very campy Gale Sondergaard looking like Turandot).
Avert thy eyes if so-called “spoilers” are not your thing: Leslie stabs herself in the gut at the end! Yes, after uttering the infamous line, “With all my heart I still love the man I killed,” she exits with a Madama Butterfly-esque act of hari kari (or seppuku, if you insist), a type of demise which must come naturally to the superb soprano singing the role in Santa Fe, Patricia Racette – although the last time I saw herself do herself in as Cio-Cio San, she slit her own throat rather than going for the belly jab. The latter would seem to be rather difficult to execute in reality, even without a handy steak knife — so I think Teachout should have skipped it. Let her live and bring the curtain down on her bitchy line.
Movie buffs may recall that La Davis gets murdered in the moonlight by an assistant of the avenging mistress. Hollywood tacked this ending on for moral reasons – but I like that ending better than the highly unconvincing though conventional operatic suicide.
The cast is wonderful: Racette is in fine vocal form as Leslie Crosbie; baritone James Maddalena is superb as the ethically challenged lawyer, Howard Joyce; baritone Anthony Michael-Moore is also excellent as the betrayed, bamboozled and befuddled husband, Robert Crosbie; and mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu is highly sympathetic as the as the ever-loving, ever-faithful if extortionate Chinese mistress. She’ll get her money no matter what. But she’s nicer than Gale Sondergaard and far less amusing.
Also quite fine is Ong Chi Seng as the slightly creepy lawyer’s clerk who knows all about the letter; tenor Roger Honeywell, who is attractively amorous in flashbacks and wonderfully menacing when he pops up as a ghost on Leslie’s trial jury; and tenor Keith Jameson who is a token colonial official. The composer and librettist, however, go rather far to create the feeling of an Orwellian “Burmese Days” portrait of a racist, British colonial presence in Singapore. We get all the old boys at their club singing dreadful things to and about the natives.
I’ll let Ken Howard’s photos do the talking about the production. (One will note the “Cat and the Canary/Old Dark House” cliché of the blowing curtains – used over and over in films, even in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Also note the actual Santa Fe sunset at the back!) The intelligent direction was by Jonathan Kent, the handsome flexible sets (seven scenes) by Hildegard Bechtler, the fine lighting designs by Duane Schuler and excellent costumes by Tom Ford.
The poor orchestra conductor, perhaps the most important person involved, too often gets the last word in reviews. Not fair or even sensible really. Patrick Summers seemed to squeeze every bit of juice out of a score that most critics and audience members alike were hearing for the first time. It made a strong first impression — and for a time – perhaps a very long while – it will be definitive. So few of these new operas ever get a second chance on life.
Leslie Crosbie – Patricia Racette
Chinese Woman – Mika Shigematsu
Geoff Hammond – Roger Honeywell
Ong Chi Seng – Rodell Rosel
John Withers – Keith Jameson
Robert Crosbie – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Howard Joyce – James Maddalena
Head Man – Sung Eun Lee
A Guard – Andrew Stenson
First Clubman – Jason Slayden
Second Clubman – Kevin Ray
A Judge – Lucas Harbour
Conductor – Patrick Summers
Director – Jonathan Kent
Scenic Designer – Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Designer – Tom Ford
Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler