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Ionarts at Santa Fe: 'The Letter'

Patricia Racette (Leslie Crosbie) and Roger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond) in The Letter, Santa Fe Opera, 2009 (photo by Ken Howard)
Santa Fe Opera's commitment to the staging of new opera continued this summer with Paul Moravec's first attempt at an opera, The Letter, the last commission of the Richard Gaddes era. As described in my preview of the score, Moravec uses dissonance in a pandiatonic but not particularly harsh style, seasoning triads with wrong notes. In performance, the score plays in an easily digestible way, not unlike the work of many film composers, who tend to use modernistic effects learned from Bartók or Schoenberg only to underscore horror or other emotional extremes. The company's new general director, Charles MacKay, told me during a conversation earlier this week (interview forthcoming) that he envisions a return to the company's earlier commitment to atonal works (Henze, Berg, Stravinsky) for the season's world and American premiere slot, beginning with next season's world premiere of Lewis Spratlan's Life Is a Dream. MacKay described this as a sort of broadening of the palette of flavors in each season.

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.

available at Amazon
W. Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories, vol. 4 (including The Letter)
available at Amazon
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)
Paul Moravec will probably write a great opera one day, but The Letter is not it, and the problems stem primarily from the libretto. Teachout has written (well, tweeted) that "The Letter looks like a movie, sounds like an opera, and plays like a play. It is, in short, everything that Paul Moravec and I had hoped it to be." The text of the libretto, upon reading it before coming to Santa Fe, indeed struck me much more like a play than an opera libretto, with rapid-fire dialogue, subtle variations of language that are supposed to signify important nuances, and ambiguity and levels of meaning that have to be communicated non-verbally. These are things that a spoken play can do quite well, but the text, mostly curt and cursory, seemed unable to bear the weight of serious music that was to be hung upon it.

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)
Where the lines were meant to be funny, especially the send-up of British imperial jingoism in the club scene ("Hammond was unmanly, / With the morals of a dirty coolie, / Unworthy to shoulder / The White Man's Burden" and "I hear he kept a yellow whore!"), the audience remained uncomfortably silent. This was true even when the merry patter ("No use going native. / Better off -- better off, better, better, better -- dead!") most evoked similar scenes like the "Don't like the French!" ensemble in Billy Budd. Not coincidentally, the club men all appear at the end of the opera as the jurors at Leslie's trial: an impartial jury of one's peers, indeed.

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)
Anthony Michaels-Moore was effective as Leslie's impotent husband, and tenor Roger Honeywell sang with devil-may-care vocal edge as her lover, Geoff Hammond. Keith Jameson was sympathetic in the smaller role of John Withers, a colonial official who probably could have been left out of the opera altogether. The most gorgeous music of the opera is the aria ("I am alone") for the Chinese Woman, Hammond's mistress who sells Joyce the letter from Leslie, in the sixth scene. Teachout has written that this is the only music that Moravec had actually composed before he drafted the libretto, meaning that Teachout had to compose words to fit with the music. He also said that he "looked up Kenneth Rexroth's '100 Poems from the Japanese' and used that for a model" for the Chinese Woman's poetic words. Japanese mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu (who was called on to replace the originally cast Ning Liang in May) sang this beautiful aria, worthy of excerpting as a recital favorite, much better on Friday night than on Monday, when her pitch was often sagging painfully flat.

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.

Other Articles:

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)
Patrick Summers, who has made something of a specialty conducting contemporary operas, was a smooth guiding force on the podium, managing to keep some shaky moments from becoming too obvious. The orchestra savored Moravec's varied and masterful orchestration, the other star of this production, bringing out many details that continued to pop out to my ears on the second performance: the tinges of metallic percussion here and there (including one exotic shimmer of the bell tree in the Chinese Woman's scene), the melancholy tenor saxophone in the scene with Ong Chi Seng, the 20s jazz rhythmic and harmonic vitality of the club scene, the many colorful uses of the low brass, a pretty violin solo with harp accompaniment as Leslie and Hammond dance.

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.


Anonymous said...

In preparation for my attending THE LETTER next week, I read the short story and watched the film, clearly noting a change in the ending. I looked forward to how the opera would deal with Mrs. Crosbie, but did not expect to have this moment spoiled by a review. Please, Mr. Downey, think twice before tossing off such important info, which was completely unnecessary for your critique. This is a new work, after all, and unlike CARMEN, its unknown outcome could and should be part of the audience's appreciation of the drama. It will no longer be for me.

Charles T. Downey said...

Oh, yes, point taken (and spoiler removed). I guess I thought that enough of the details about the plot had been circulated on the Internet by Terry Teachout and others that it was no longer a spoiler. Please accept my apologies for ruining the surprise!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Downey, you are a gentleman and a scholar. Profuse thank you's on behalf of your future readers!