I’ve been so preoccupied with the fast-approaching publication of Pops that I haven’t had much time to think about The Letter. Today I’m thinking about it in a great big way. A few days ago I was told that Opera News had just published a hats-off review of the premiere performance. That review, by Simon Williams, is now available online:
Interest in the new opera at Santa Fe this year ran especially high. The Letter (seen Aug. 7), composed by Paul Moravec to a libretto by Terry Teachout based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play, was intended to be an instantly accessible work with wide popular appeal. It may be just that. For a start, the opera is an improvement on the play, which is verbose, faultily structured and moralistic; instead, Teachout’s terse libretto recaptures the stringent economy of the much finer story, also by Maugham, upon which the play is based….
Moravec’s score is richly orchestrated and, like much of modern opera, functions like music for the movies; it amplifies emotions, emphasizes confrontation and crisis and drives the action forward. But it also creates a dramatic world in which singing seems to be the only appropriate medium. The thematic and structural unity of the music is not readily apparent at first hearing, but as a dramatic language it is often thrilling. Reminiscences of love are heard through the lush harmonies of nineteenth-century opera. Legal negotiations are harsh and staccato, with voices and orchestra disconnected. A brilliant satire of the gossipy, racist culture of British colonialism is built on jazz rhythms of the 1920s, and Leslie’s suicide, accompanied by brutal chords, is a mighty impressive finale. Teachout’s libretto allows the music space to explore the layers of the drama and leaves time for atmospheric interludes bordering on the eerie between the nine scenes of the action.
It would have been difficult to muster a stronger cast for the premiere. Patricia Racette had to represent a more conflicted and contradictory character than the central figure in either Maugham’s story or play, and there was a danger that the coexistence of passion and coldheartedness could strain credibility. But Racette’s consistently powerful singing and flamboyant command of melodrama–at times she seemed a dead ringer for Joan Crawford–carried the day. James Maddalena, as the lawyer, Howard Joyce, who is drawn into corruption by loyalty to his friends, gave a psychologically subtle portrayal of moral ambivalence and, in a soliloquy recalling Captain Vere’s final solo in Billy Budd, raised the dilemma that Joyce finds himself in to the level of tragedy. The robust baritone of Anthony Michaels-Moore might have been too strong for the broken figure of Robert Crosbie, the betrayed husband, but he represented moral weakness, emotional dependence and alcoholic indulgence with such devastating detail that Crosbie seemed symbolic of the corruption at the heart of the entire colonial enterprise….
Will The Letter find its way into the repertoire? The warm response of the Santa Fe audience suggests the work may have legs…
We sure hope so.
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Read the whole thing here.