Thursday, August 13, 2009


As Terry Teachout has been telling us for the last couple of years, that's how The Letter - Paul Moravec's new opera, for which Terry wrote the libretto - opens. The house lights go down, the conductor slinks into place, and the opera opens with a series of gunshots. When the lights come up, there's Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie, gun in hand and looking rather stunned.

It's almost exactly how the famous 1940 film of the same name opens, if you swap Bette Davis for Racette. Not exactly, because in the film you see the veranda of the Crosbie bungalow, situated on a rubber plantation near Singapore, and you see Leslie shooting Geoff Hammond.

I watched that film a few days before the premiere of the opera, and was mostly unhappy with it. Yes, great atmosphere and photography, and a good performance from Davis, but this was heavily offset by the chilly quality of her character, for whom I could feel no sympathy, and the unexamined racism of the script, exemplified by its treatment of Hammond's mixed-race wife.

I'm extremely happy to report that I thought The Letter (the opera) a terrific piece. I have to say up front that Terry is a friend and I've been following the creation of this opera from well before the official announcements. He's done a rather thorough job of setting expectations for the opera, in many blog postings describing what he and Moravec set out to accomplish with The Letter.

I'm somewhat amused to report that there was some misdirection involved in how expectations were set. For one thing, the creators will tell you that they were aiming for a very compact, movie-length opera, because "attention spans are getting shorter."

I don't buy that - multibook sagas and very long books sell well, Ring cycles sell out everywhere, and movie fans regularly attend long films - but even if I did buy the premise, The Letter is a single stretch of about one hour and forty minutes (100 minutes). That is a long for a one-act opera and it's a long stretch of music to through-compose. Offhand, I can think of only three one-act operas that exceed, let's say, one CD: Elektra, Salome, and Das Rheingold. I don't think it's necessarily easier to sit through 100 consecutive minutes of music than to sit through the four short acts of La Boheme, which, as everybody knows, tends to sell out.

And The Letter is a mighty well-constructed 100 minutes of music. Yes, it's compact, in that the music is direct, tightly-written, and has plenty of momentum. There are some short interludes to cover scene changes; otherwise, it's almost continuous singing. I liked the music a great deal, more than I like the composer's Pulitzer Prize winning Tempest Fantasy, in fact. It's absorbing; it carries the drama brilliantly, drawing the audience into the action; it fleshes out the characters and makes them real humans; the arias are beautiful and singable.

I loved the often-gorgeous orchestration, and thought that the accompaniment of dialog exceptionally good, where some composers of new operas fall into ostinato-itis and just run a riff in the orchestra. I sometimes felt the word-setting for dialog wasn't ideal and didn't fall entirely naturally: sometimes the tone rose at the end of a sentence for no apparent reason, or a rest didn't punctuate the phrase correctly, or a name was at the end of a sentence and would have made more sense at the beginning. These are minor complaints.

Now, the composer and librettist have been telling listeners, over and over, in and out of print, that it's opera for non-opera-lovers! for film-lovers! it's not experimental opera! it's not for eggheads!, but I suggest that you ignore them.

For one thing, during the pre-premiere symposium, I heard the phrase "tone row" used, and the composer meant by that exactly what an egghead like me understand him to mean. He even sang the row, which, if I'm remembering this correctly, is associated with Leslie Crosbie. For another, in an era when there's no longer a common musical language, every composer is writing experimental music, music that suits his or her personality and style.

With a bit of hesitation - and a bit of a joke - Moravec also said during the symposium that there are leitmotivs associated with each character, and with the letter itself. (The joke? Terry hates Wagner.) It's easy enough to hear the motifs; the chromatic theme associated with Leslie, the bluff, hale-fellow-well-met diatonic theme associated with her husband, the insinuating tune you hear when the lawyer's assistant is on stage. All are subtle and blend in well with the overall texture of the music, with the possible except of Robert Crosbie's motif, which was too good-natured and stuck out of the overall texture of the opera perhaps more than was ideal.

In any event, the music adds tremendous depth to the characters and propels the drama forward. That's exactly what you want in opera: I was so caught up in the music and action that I stopped taking notes a few minutes in. And when it was over, I was very sorry I wasn't going to get to hear it again. I should have gotten on the list for the dress rehearsal, you bet.

I was particularly impressed with how the opera handles the matter of racism on the part of the English colonists. In the film, the racism passes no questions asked; it's just how people were. In the libretto, the racism makes you squirm, and it's obviously supposed to. There's a fabulous scene in a bar, where a bunch of good old British boys toast Leslie Crosby's guts in shooting her supposed rapist while talking in dialect to the Asian waiters and referring to the Chinese Woman as "a yellow whore." And during the Chinese Woman's scene, lawyer Howard Joyce's view of her changes to the point that he apologizes to her.

The women in the cast were better vocally than the men, though all acted up a storm and were mostly well-directed. Patricia Racette did a great job as Leslie Crosbie, singing with guts and tenderness and rage where required. She's a terrific actress and put across Leslie's internal conflicts with great power. She ought to have let her nails grow out for the role, or maybe the makeup department could get her paste-ons; I just don't think Leslie Crosbie's fingernails would have been at lesbian standard length.

Mika Shigamatsu, a mysteriously late substitute for Ning Liang ("scheduling conflict"), was a dignified Chinese Woman, singing with a soft-grained and lovely tone. The libretto gives this straightforward character more inherent dignity than the other characters in the book, and she's a far cry from the vengeful dragon played wordlessly by Gale Sondergaard in the 1940 film. She has a single aria in her six-minute scene, singing about her love for Geoff Hammond, whose demise we see at the opening and whose live-in lover she is.

Anthony Michaels-Moore was an appropriately bluff Robert Crosbie, loving Leslie nearly to the end and apparently foolish enough to believe her. As in past San Francisco appearances, he sounded somewhat wooly and hollow-toned. The veteran James Maddalena sang the conflicted lawyer Howard Joyce effectively. Roger Honeywell was not at all memorable as Geoff Hammond; I wish they'd cast someone with a truly gorgeous voice in the role. He wasn't bad, but neither will I be looking for his name on future cast lists. Rodell Rosel was an unctuous Ong Chi Seng, Joyce's legal assistant.

The set, by Hildegard Bechtler, works extremely well, facilitating smooth scene changes and neatly dividing up the stage. (For those who don't know this: the Santa Fe house doesn't have a fly tower and has limited wing space. Most opera there use a unit set or the designer finds ways to move around portions of the scenery to create discrete spaces.) A wall in the Crosbie home swings open to reveal a jail cell; a panel opens and out slides Howard Joyce's office. (Bug report: conductor Patrick Summers is disconcertingly reflected in a glass door in the office set during the Chinese Woman's scene.) Jonathan Kent directs efficiently, but I wish he would spare us the opera-ending visual cliche of Patricia Racette dragging the tablecloth and place settings onto the floor as she collapses. Summers does a good job keeping the opera moving and balancing a good-sized orchestra.


Joshua Kosman said...

Thanks for this great report. You've made a terrifically persuasive case.

Lisa Hirsch said...

A persuasive case that no one agrees with! The Letter has gotten reviews ranging from lukewarm to scalding.

Unknown said...

Hey two of us liked it - Three if you count Martin - Five if you count John and Bernice (friends of mine who were there). We thought the music had great drive to it and there were all sorts of interesting musical influences at play. My only quibble was a bit too much of the "never" and "ever" motive of the three characters (Leslie, the husband and the dead guy). Also the dialog about being lost or trapped in the jungle - once or twice but more than that and it quickly dissolves into a 1950's film noir cliche. Man, did the costume designer capitalize Racette's curvaceous form! Va-va-va-voom. Cleavage-o-rama!
I hated the ending. These miserable wretches deserved to live with this woman the rest of their lives!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm so glad you liked it! Seems like there might be more of us - I have links to reviews that were more positive. I have to read them and link to them myself.

Someone - Anne Midgette? - thought Racette's outfits made her look dumpy.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear you are a friend of TT. What a tiresome and self-important twit (at least in his reviews). And sadly inclined towards weird little displays of his right-wing ideology as if it mattered. Oh, well, I suppose it does, to his corporate masters.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Hehehe. I have a couple of conservative friends even though I'm practically a socialist. Terry is a lovely person, truly. Sure, I roll my eyes at the politics from time to time. I bet he has a hard time with my blog from time to time. :)