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09 September, 1994

The Dangerous Liaisons - San Francisco Opera

The Dangerous Liaisons: Opera by Conrad Susa, libretto by Philip Littell.

Review by Andrew Byrne

San Francisco is privileged to have an opera company of a standard higher than one might expect for the size of the city. In some years it vies for a place in the top few in the world. Despite reputed financial troubles the cast lists read like a who's who of world opera in the 1990s with an ambitious season heavily subscribed. This included the newly commissioned American opera, The Dangerous Liaisons, music by Conrad Susa, libretto by Philip Littell.

The world première production uses the book's French setting and period (c.1780), a time of decadence and excess for some. By contrast, the production shows none of this, everything having a purpose towards the finale's terrible humiliation. Though in English, surtitles ensured the 3000-plus audience kept abreast of the story's intricacies. The scenery was by back-projection of woods, cloisters, pavilions, rich interiors and other fantasies, augmented by large lateral mirrors, at times fenestrated with translucent hanging panels. This allowed smooth scene changes as well as clever conjoint scenes where parties dictate and receive correspondence simultaneously. The ornate period costumes are richly coloured and the few necessary props of chairs, writing tables, keys and most important, beds, are continental inspired.

The wicked weaver of the web of deceit is the Marquise de Merteuil, played with regal duplicity by Frederica von Stade. Her character development is as complex as her vocal lines and she was equal to both demands. Her final return is most moving. In pink and red, with mirrors now swung inwards, she has survived humiliation and smallpox and her punishment is to live. Her final declamation is most appropriate for a story revolving around inappropriate and excessive appetites: I'm hungry! reminiscent of Bernstein's Candide: Any questions?!

The evil Cassanova figure of Visconte de Valmont is most ably played by Thomas Hampson, now a much sought-after singer on several continents. Successively four women are seduced by him: complete with bedroom scenes for three! He is given some beautiful music, as well as some poetry of substance which he combines in a credible characterisation.

As Madame de Tourvel, the rejected but only real lover, Renée Fleming was most exciting singing her exacting vocal lines in a high tessitura.

The young music teacher and paramour, who is 'friend', rival and finally the successful dueller over de Valmont, is played by Australian, David Hobson, making his international debut. Although two-timing like everybody else, his yearnings and regrets had the sincere conviction called for. He had much worthwhile music to sing and did it ample justice. More use could perhaps have been made of his unique, seamless coloratura abilities considering the part was actually written for him.

Judith Frost, Johanna Meier, Mary Mills, Elizabeth Bishop and Laura Claycomb made up the coterie involved in this romantic blackmail.

The musical score was imaginative, sympathetic and often tuneful. There was a mix of modern with clever use of formal quasi-baroque passages when the story line required. In raucous and raunchy sections, Susa has the orchestra doing some unconventional but effective manoeuvres. The storm scene also employs original orchestration, culminating in a clever dripping rhythm as the chateau's drainage dominates the wind and rain. Under Donald Runnicles' baton, the orchestra is one of the most disciplined I have heard.

Dangerous Liaisons is an ideal vehicle for an opera, with great opportunities for emotional sentiment, both for solo and concerted pieces. Philip Littell, succeeds in getting the story across, though not always in the most beautiful English. In his choice of words, he often avoids French or Latin derivatives, preferring less sympathetic Teutonic forms which sound wrong in this setting. A joy of writing in English is its vast vocabulary. He also needs to rework some parts such as de Danceny's repeated refrain, I want to love your whole, earning a distracting giggle from those prone. Words such as superfluous are best avoided in song. All considered, the poet does create art from all these variables.

Is this a new opera for the repertoire? Perhaps. All may judge when the video and sound track are released later in the year.