‘Opera Noir’ Entertains at Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera has made it happen with William Wyler’s 1940 motion
picture, The Letter based on Somerset Maugham’s 1920s
short story and play, and now an opera. It may well be the sleeper of the Santa
Fe season, unusual for a newly commissioned opera.

Within a dark toned sparsely furnished residential stage set, four
collapsing palm trees grimly lowering in the background of a hot and smelly
Malay rubber plantation house, a bored housewife is carrying on a torrid affair
with a local dandy, her often absent and somewhat dull husband unaware. In the
Wyler movie, the main feature of which is Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie the
erring wife, moments after the show opens we hear gunfire as her lover Geoff
Hammond staggers across the verandah, Leslie emptying her six-shooter into him
in a jealous rage. Bette Davis did it with fervor, and believe me, Santa
Fe’s soprano Patricia Racette does the deed with equal vehemence. We were
off to a strong start, and the intensity rarely lets up over the 100-minute

SantaFe_MG_2458.gifAnthony Michaels-Moore (Robert Crosbie) and James Maddalena (Howard Joyce)

The Santa Fe team, led by composer Paul Moravec with librettist Terry
Teachout, musical director Patrick Summers and stage director Jonathan Kent,
took a chance patterning their new opera so closely on the ‘noir’
qualities of old movies, but that was exactly the tone they wanted to establish
for this sordid little story, and they got it right. Even more successful is
the musical score by Paul Moravec, a professor of music at Adelphi University.
Worry not, this is no academician’s tepid exercise — it’s a
rip-snorting adventure in high-class movie music with the likes of Bernard
Herrmann, Eric Korngold and Max Steiner hovering in the background.
Moravec’s music is fluent and beautifully orchestrated. The tonal score
is through-composed, no pauses for arias or set pieces aside from brief
moments, with a good sense of storytelling and excitement resulting.

It turns out Moravec, in his first opera, is a wise and able theatre
composer who knows to keep his orchestra subdued for key passages of exposition
and musical dialogue, but can unleash his violins and woodwinds in romantic
mood music to evoke the sweeping “love me forever passages” of
Leslie and Geoff’s affair. Don’t laugh, but when it comes to
writing music and vocal lines that can narrate and sustain mood, Moravec
impressed me as having it all over the cognoscenti’s current darlings,
Kaija Saariaho or Osvaldo Golijov, also lately heard in new works at Santa Fe.
Sometimes it feels good just to get down to storytelling without trying to make
musical history.

SantaFe_MG_6114.gifJames Maddalena (Howard Joyce), Mika Shigematsu (A Chinese Woman) and Rodell Rosel (Ong Chi Seng)

Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Leslie has been caught out not only in
her affair with Goeff, but his murder as well. Once she discovered Geoff was
through with her, preferring his new Chinese mistress, Leslie popped him off, a
woman scorned. But that’s not all: her husband Robert has to come up with
a lot of cash to buy back a letter Leslie stupidly wrote to Geoff inviting him
over the night she shot him, a piece of evidence that would convict the lady.
The letter fell into the hands of Geoff’s mistress, and now the Chinese
woman wants to cash in. Of course it will ruin husband Robert Crosbie, played
and sung with great effectiveness by Anthony Michaels-Moore, using his
life’s savings to redeem his adulteress wife. Sticky, eh?

SantaFe_MG_2300.gifRoger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond)

Coming to the rescue is Howard Joyce, Robert’s lawyer friend, who
manages to buy and repress the letter, and convince a Singapore British jury to
let Leslie off, claiming she was the victim of Geoff’s violent attempt to
rape her. The one-act opera ends in a big mess, romance gone, careers
compromised, and then in a coupe-de-theatre, Leslie takes matters into
her own hands and resolves her dilemma. I’ll not reveal the quick

Ms. Racette, Michaels-Moore, James Maddalena as the lawyer, and assorted
secondary role singers could not have been any better. Roger Honeywell, Rodell
Rosel and Keith Jameson, all tenors, played key parts in the show’s
success, with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers
wonderfully effective in their central role. Patricia Racette is a marvel; her
full lyric soprano voice is in solid shape, used with skill and much dramatic
effect. She has an expressive face, and is an actor of the first order. It was
a pleasure to encounter her strengths in this prima donna role. For
now, she owns the part. Others will soon want to.

The Letter may to some degree be a work in progress; it seems
fairly well finished, if a few minutes too long. The intensity of the
Maupassant-esque plotting with all its ironies is well maintained, with good
rhythm and tempo, rhetorically and musically. But in a departure from Maugham
and Wyler, Morevec added a short scene in which the Chinese woman (the fine
Japanese mezzo Mika Shigematsu), comes to the lawyer to deliver the letter and
collect her cash. Unfortunately she is given not only a voice in the
proceedings with a short aria, but brings up issues that only obfuscate and
delay. I hope the authors will rethink that scene. Much effect was gained by
Wyler in keeping his mysterious Chinese woman quiet — a strong presence
but generalized. There can be too many ‘specifics,’ sometimes in
dramatic plotting, and The Letter has a few. In the main it is
unusually engaging, well-paced entertainment, handsomely performed.

J. A. Van Sant ©2009

image_description=Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
product_title=Paul Moravec: The Letter
product_by=Leslie Crosbie: Patricia Racette; Chinese Woman: Mika Shigematsu; Geoff Hammond: Roger Honeywell; Ong Chi Seng: Rodell Rosel; John Withers: Keith Jameson; Robert Crosbie: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Howard Joyce: James Maddalena. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: Jonathan Kent. Scenic Designer: Hildegard Bechtler. Costume Designer: Tom Ford. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler.
product_id=Above: Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera