Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Dead Letter Office

August 16, 2009

Patricia Racette
Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2009

I suppose the good news about The Letter, the world premiere opera from Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout now finishing its run in Santa Fe, is that it is not a total disaster. It’s close, mind you, but not quite there. Or comparing it to other recent world premieres, it’s not as bad as Howard Shore’s The Fly, but it made me pine for the musical and theatrical values of Tan Dun’s The Last Emperor. The opera is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s play of the same name but is frankly far more indebted to the William Wyler film version from 1940 starring Bette Davis. It’s a simple melodramatic story about a wife who kills her lover and then tries to cover it up by claiming self-defense in the face of an attempted rape. The murderer, Leslie Crosbie, thinks she’ll get off until the victim’s mistress finds an incriminating letter from Crosbie and uses it to blackmail her. Crosbie is set free, but everyone is dragged into the big shame spiral.

The opera was intended to mimic the feel of a movie and runs just around 100 minutes in a single act. Sadly, it’s this very effort to maintain a cinematic scope that is the work’s major downfall. It’s well paced, but it felt like a retread. Teachout’s libretto is little more than a moderately altered version of the screenplay, which wasn’t Shakespeare to begin with. Teachout joins a long line of music critics and authors who’ve crossed the divide between creator and commentator. Sadly, he ends up not with the likes of Shaw and Virgil Thomson, but instead with the likes of Roger Ebert. Think of The Letter as the operatic equivalent of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Only much funnier.

There also seems to be a complete lack of awareness of camp by the creators. Due to the passage of time, The Letter has gone from tense melodrama to comic walk down memory lane. The show elicits more than a few unintentional laughs from the audience with its histrionics and outdated cultural mores. In fact the piece probably would have worked better as a comedy than it does in its current form. Moravec’s music, of course, can be taken independently of the text. It’s not bad, and at times there are some moments of intrigue. However, there are just as many moments that sound like they could have been taken wholesale from any film noir soundtrack of the period. The vocal writing never really ignites into something memorable or affecting. Patrick Summers was at the podium and seemed to have things under control with no wavering or confusion on anyone's part that I could tell at this point in the run.

The cast itself does admirably with the meager material foisted upon them. Anthony Michaels-Moore is Robert Crosbie, Leslie’s husband, and comes off with an almost sexy frustration in his part. James Maddalena plays Leslie’s lawyer Howard Joyce in the most consistent and believable acting in the show. The big part, though, is reserved for the underrated American soprano Patricia Racette. She is commanding and dispatches this mess with ease. All I could think about was when is someone going to get around to writing a new role for her that actually lives up to her prodigious talent. It hasn’t happened yet. One piece of good news for her, though. She gets to wear a number of excellent period costumes designed by Tom Ford for the production. I hope she gets to keep them so that they see the light of day again.

So it appears that The Letter is likely to sink quickly into memory. Teachout and Moravec claimed at one point that their opera was written specifically targeted at people who don’t like opera. It appears that they have succeeded. As one might suspect, though, this is not a recipe for success given that The Letter also appears to be unable to convert anyone into liking opera either.



In truth, the Roger Ebert/Russ Meyer lampoon, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" is very, very funny and decidedly sick. "The Letter" sounds like mild camp, and if you're going to do a Bette Davis movie as an opera there are certainly better choices. How about "Marked Woman" with its chorus of "hostesses" and gangsters? Or "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" I can just hear "But you are, Blanche..." set to music now.
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