Patricia Racette (Leslie Crosbie) and Roger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond) in The Letter, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
Moravec chose his friend and supporter, the drama critic Terry Teachout, to write the libretto, based on Somerset Maugham's sultry short story The Letter. It is a fictionalization of an actual news story from Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, in the early 20th century, the murder of William Steward by an English housewife named Ethel Proudlock. Although she told police that Steward had tried to rape her, it came out that Mrs. Proudlock had been having an affair with Steward and had shot and killed him in a rage after discovering his liaison with another woman. Decades before Law and Order and similar television shows "ripped from the headlines," Maugham changed the names and details "to protect the innocent," having his murderous wife, Leslie Crosbie, be found innocent after her lawyer bribes a witness to keep the eponymous letter from becoming evidence at trial. Mrs. Proudlock was convicted and sentenced to hanging, only to leave Malaya when her sentence was commuted by the authorities.
W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories, vol. 4 (including The Letter)
The Letter, Bette Davis, dir. William Wyler
Paul Moravec, The Letter (piano-vocal score)
Maugham himself adapted the story into a successful play, a version of which was directed by William Wyler in a now classic film with femme fatale extraordinaire Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie. To appease the ratings agency's disapproval of the incidents of adultery and murder in the film, Wyler and his colleagues changed the ending -- Maugham has Leslie live in disgrace, knowing that her husband despises her -- to punish Leslie for her crimes, having her dramatically murdered by her lover's "widow." Teachout, perhaps in keeping with the tragic tendencies of opera and perhaps to preserve the film noir feel of the movie, opts for a tragic ending, too.
Patricia Racette (Leslie Crosbie) in The Letter, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
That impression was borne out in performance, both times I heard the opera (on Monday and Friday night, the latter to one of the least filled houses in my experience at Santa Fe), when the audience laughed uproariously at many lines that did not seem intended as gags. This was possibly because the text makes Leslie's attempts at prevarication so ludicrous ("It was an accident" or "But she shot him six times, Bob, / And that looks bad. I mean: six times!") or because while the scenario would have seemed grim and shocking in film or play format, the fact that the characters were singing seemed to underscore a disparity between the weight of the music and the simplicity of the dialogue ("I'll put the body in the spare room" or "Go and give her a hand, old man. She'll want someone to zip her up").
Singapore Club Scene in The Letter, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
This is too bad because so much about this production was admirable, and hearing two performances helped me to realize more of what was good that does not come immediately to the surface. Patricia Racette was fiery and yet coldly calculating as Leslie Crosbie, with a shattering command of the dramatically placed high notes that showed yet again how much better it is to craft an operatic role directly for a singer. Moravec reportedly modified the orchestration in rehearsal to allow her to be heard more clearly at quiet points, too. It is a role that fit her like a glove, because it was sized exactly for her considerable dramatic abilities, recently put to such memorable effect in Washington as Jenůfa and Ellen Orford. The rest of the cast mostly seemed like supporting roles, although there were excellent contributions from James Maddalena as Howard Joyce, the conflicted lawyer who gets Leslie acquitted, and Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel as the obsequious, effete Ong Chi Seng, Joyce's clerk who helps engineer the purchase of the troublesome letter.
Mika Shigematsu (Chinese Woman) in The Letter, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
The real star of the show in many ways was the staging by Jonathan Kent, who directed equally gorgeous productions of Le Nozze di Figaro and The Tempest at Santa Fe. Instead of his former partner, set and costume designer Paul Brown, Kent worked here with scenic designer Hildegard Bechtler, who created a two-walled set with folding or extending arms that created backdrops for the courtroom, the jail, and Joyce's office. Period costumes by fashion designer Tom Ford were all attractive, especially the gowns for Racette and the traditional dress for the Chinese Woman, with her bangles and long fingernails. What really made this staging look like film noir was the moody lighting of Duane Schuler, blue and sepia that deadened the set and costumes into a bleak black and white, casting many shadows from the rotating fans and louvered windows.
George Loomis, Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico (Financial Times, August 10)
Scott Cantrell, Santa Fe Opera delivers a dead 'Letter' (Dallas Morning News, August 10)
Lawrence A. Johnson, Santa Fe Opera shoots and scores with stylish opera noir “The Letter” (Chicago Classical Review, August 5)
Allan Kozinn, Maugham’s ‘Letter’ of Duplicity, Staged as an Opera (New York Times, August 4)
Kyle MacMillan, Santa Fe Opera's "Letter" has everything — almost (Denver Post, July 30)
John Stege, A Night at the Cinema (Santa Fe Reporter, July 29)
Anne Midgette, In Santa Fe, Concepts Without Connections (Washington Post, July 27)
Craig Smith, 'The Letter' Evokes Dark Charm of a True Tale (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 27)
Deborah Baker, 'Opera noir' latest new offering at Santa Fe Opera (Associated Press, July 24)
Terry Teachout, A drama critic's turn to face the music (Los Angeles Times, July 19)
The Wagnerian touches noted in my preview are there but do not come across so blatantly in hearing, although the characterization of the erotic tattoo sung by Hammond to Leslie and heard repeatedly throughout the opera as Tristanesque is not an exaggeration. Other motifs stood out more clearly after a couple hearings of the score, including a repeated-note motif that signified obsession (or the anxiety of a beating heart), appearing for example in the final scene as Leslie moves toward suicide, and the prominent motif of rising fifths (a "tuning motif" introduced in the opening measures as E-B-C-B-F#-G-D-C) which might be associated with deceit. The score holds exceptional promise for Moravec's future as an opera composer.
Santa Fe Opera's world premiere production of The Letter will receive two more performances, on August 15 and 18.