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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Opera Review: An Overwhelming Sense of Gilt

The Dangerous Liasons bows at MSM.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Comte de Valmont's favorite piece of furniture in The Dangerous Liasons.

Since its publication in 1782, the French novel Les Liasons Dangereuses has had many incarnations. It has spawned six film adaptations, a hit Broadway show and kept corset-makers in business. In 1994, composer Conrad Susa and librettist Philip Littell turned it into an opera: The Dangerous Liasons  which premiered in San Francisco with an all-star cast. Mr. Susa's version  arrived this weekend at the Manhattan School of Music, with three performances (featuring two seperate casts) at Borden Auditorium.

Liasons is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and her friend, ex-lover and co-conspirator the Comte de Valmont, members of the French aristocracy in the time before the Revolution. For no  reason other than boredom and malice, these two sophisticates casually destroy the lives and reputations of Valmont's lovers, cutting a swathe of broken hearts through the French countryside. The Marquise is the mastermind, spooling out spidery plots through letters that drip with poisoned intent. Valmont is her agent, a Don Giovanni without that character's few saving graces.

Mr. Susa stated that his intent in setting Liasons was to re-create the hothouse atmosphere of Cosí fan tutte, the last and darkest of Mozart's three Da Ponte comedies. Unfortunately, this opera is weighted down with a leaden English libretto, filled with awkward attempted rhymes. It is couched in a heavily upholstered score full of invention and rococo detail, but lacking wit and melody: two qualities that might have sweetened this bitter tale.

In Friday's cast, mezzo Gina Perregrino was potent as the Marquise, capturing the character's sense of grandeur and determination. She was at her finest in the long declamatory letter where her character reflects on an unhappy childhood and her station in life as a widow who may or may not have destroyed her husband. Her dignity in the final scene was worthy of Strauss' Marschallin. Benjamin Dickerson was a bluff and cocky Valmont with a sturdy baritone. He needed more charisma to make his character believable. Soprano Emma McDermott sounded compressed and thin as Madame de Tourvel, going over the top at Valmont's betrayal and gleefully chewing the period scenery in the following mad scene.

The reason to go to MSM productions is to hear quality vocal talent. The finest on display was Scott Joiner in the role of the Chevalier de Danceny, the young nobleman who duels and ultimately slays Valmont, then (at his request) publishes the sordid details for all of France to see. This singer had a genial quality and an innocent charm that suited the role and supported a warm tenor. Also, Yeonji Lee shone in the smaller role of Cécile de Volanges, capturing her character's noble nature despite disappearing from the stage in the second half of the show.

In the novel, the depravities of Madame la Marquise and the good Comte unfold through letters. In the opera, those letters are often sung out loud as arias, with characters on opposite sides of the stage declaiming their own texts as Mr. Susa's score weaves the lines together. However, this device means that a lot of scenes with crucial overlapping moments and key plot developments are stripped of any dramatic interaction between the singers. Having multiple singers declaim multiple plot lines at once is the essence of opera, but even here the audience was hard pressed to keep up.

The Manhattan School of Music production presented Mr. Susa's score (under the baton of veteran conductor George Manahan) in revised and reduced orchestration from 1997, meant to ease the burden on its cast. However, the singers still struggled against the heavy orchestration and were occasionally forced to shout their lines. An inventive set and gorgeous period costumes (lots of corsetry and wigs) could not conceal the problem: the opera itself. Like the revenge-driven depraditions of its well-dressed protagonists, The Dangerous Liasons is both tragic and entirely unnecessary.

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