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Dirty Blonde
GRAMOPHONE MAGAZINE

September 1, 2009

Chloe Veltman reviews Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout's new opera noire at this year's Santa Fe Opera Festival

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While developing a new opera for this year’s Santa Fe Opera Festival, librettist Terry Teachout came across a comment of George Bernard Shaw’s regarding Il Trovatore which summed up what he and composer Paul Moravec hoped to achieve with their own project: “It is swift in action, and perfectly homogenous in atmosphere and feeling. It is absolutely void of intellectual interest: the appeal is to the instincts and the senses all through.”

Running at just 90 intermission-less minutes and opening to the sound of a series of gun-shots and the sight of the protagonist clutching a smoking revolver over her dead lover’s corpse, Teachout and Moravec’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play, The Letter, certainly assaults the senses. Based on a true-crime narrative about a woman who gets away with murder despite lying about her motives, The Letter enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and was adapted twice for the screen – most famously in a 1940 Bette Davis vehicle. The Santa Fe re-telling, which stars James Maddalena as a conscience-stricken lawyer and a fiery Patricia Racette and brooding Anthony Michaels-Moore as an unhappy expatriate couple -- Leslie and Robert Crosbie -- whose life in the jungle is ransacked by passion, violence and revenge, retains all of the melodrama of Maugham’s terse play while considerably heightening its emotion.

Moravec’s muscular score is as hammily reminiscent of 1940s film noir as the vampiric shadows of Duane Schuler’s lighting design with its use of swooping vocal lines, tremolo violins, shrill piccolos, honking trombone ostinati and heart-battering timpani. It nevertheless emphasises the high-stakes atmosphere, sometimes even undercutting the emotion of Maugham’s scenario. In a scene that takes place in Leslie’s prison cell, for instance, a sweet harp and flute line ironically suggests the murderess’ innocence before a flashback scene portrays what really happened on the night of the assassination. The unexpected appearances of the ghost of Leslie’s deceased lover, Geoff Hammond (an innovation not present in Maugham’s original and chillingly executed by Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell) contribute an arresting layer of Grand Guignol tension to the action.

Director Jonathan Kent’s staging of Hammond’s death in the opening beat misses a prime opportunity for melodrama as a result of being obscured by a set of flapping muslin curtains stage-left. And the production’s intermittent set changes hamper the pace. Yet this steamy-sepulchral operatic potboiler set in colonial Malaya between the world wars holds our attention throughout – and not simply by appealing to our senses. Far from being “absolutely void of intellectual interest,” The Letter inadvertently engages the brain with its seething study of the blurred lines between friendship and duty, love and madness and civilization and savagery.

THE LETTER
SANTA FE OPERA FESTIVAL
JULY 25 - AUGUST 18, 2009
MUSIC BY PAUL MORAVEC
LIBRETTO BY TERRY TEACHOUT
DIRECTION BY JONATHAN KENT
CONDUCTOR PATRICK SUMMERS
STARRING PATRICIA RACETTE, JAMES MADDALENA, ANTHONY MICHAELS-MOORE
WWW.SANTAFEOPERA.ORG

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