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Paul Moravec, The Letter: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Santa Fe Opera, Patrick Summers (conductor), Santa Fe, 18.8.2009 (RH)

Director: Jonathan Kent
Set Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Costume Design: Tom Ford
Lighting Design: Duan Schuler

Leslie Crosbie - Patricia Racette
Head Man - Sung Eun Lee
Robert Crosbie - Anthony Michaels-Moore
John Withers - Keith Jameson
Howard Joyce - James Maddalena
Geoff Hammon - Roger Honeywell
Ong Chi Seng - Rodell Rosel
A Guard - Andrew Stenson
First Clubman - Jason Slayden
Second Clubman - Kevin Ray
A Chinese Woman - Mika Shigematsu
A Judge - Harbour

Anthony Michaels-Moore (Robert Crosbie), Patricia Racette (Leslie Crosbie), James Maddalena (Howard Joyce), Keith Jameson (John Withers)

Paul Moravec and Terry Teachout's new opera 'The Letter' was commissioned for the 2009 Santa Fe Opera festival and received its first performances in Jonathan Kent's handsome production. Moravec and Teachout's inspiration for the opera was Somerset Maugham's short story and play 'The Letter' along with the Hollywood film version starring Bette Davis.

Maugham's text is too wordy to form the basis for an opera so Teachout (himself a distinguished drama critic) has created a suitably spare libretto which retains elements of Maugham's naturalism. Film noir was a big inspiration for the opera, so that Patricia Racette (as Leslie Crosbie), dressed by Tom Ford, often evoked images of Bette Davis.

Hildegard Bechtler's imaginative set created some very filmic settings. But more than that, Moravec has created a score which re-created the sound world of Hollywood films of the 40's.

Unfortunately therein lay the weakness of the opera as well. Moravec's score to this, his first opera, was rich and expressive. The orchestra under Patrick Summers made a fine sound, and expressed much of the emotional life of the characters. But Moravec has been unable to created memorable vocal lines to match. In a predominantly tonal score I missed a sense of the melodic sweep which the subject seemed to cry out for. Though Racette, as the heroine, had her big moments they were dramatically effective, rather than musically memorable.

The opera opens with a dramatic coup, Leslie Crosbie (Racette) shooting a man, Geoff Hammond (Roger Honeywell). At first Leslie Crosbie claims Hammond tried to rape her and she is committed for trial supported by her husband Robert (Anthony Michaels-Moore) and lawyer, Howard Joyce, (James Maddalena).

Joyce learns from his assistant, Ong (Robert Rodell) that Hammond's Chinese mistress (Mika Shigematsu) possesses a damning letter from Leslie to Hammond. To free her from the hangman's noose the letter must be bought and relationships ruined.

The opera played for 90 minutes in 8 swift scenes, very reminiscent of film. Santa Fe Opera had provided a strong cast and the result was a show which both looked and sounded good. Racette was supremely impressive as the soignée, cigarette smoking femme fatale. Michaels-Moore provided strong, buttoned up support as her loving (and rather dim) husband.

Maddalena was his usual strong, characterful self as the lawyer. This was probably the richest, most complex male character in the opera and Maddalena's portrayal was faultless. The supporting characters were equally well done.

Teachout's libretto owed more to Hollywood than Maugham and the characters lacked the sense of powerful emotions simmering under British reserve : instead there were big raw passions, strongly expressed. I had severe doubts over the scene in the club, a scene invented by Teachout and Moravec. The sense of British mores and racialism veered too far into sneering caricature. Given the distance both text and music are from Maugham's original, I felt that the work might have been stronger if it had had a more generalised milieu.

Moravec and Teachout have created a most enjoyable show however, strongly realised by Jonathan Kent and given the subject matter, it will undoubtedly be successful. As a first opera, the piece is musically impressive, if flawed, and I look forward to Moravec's next work.

Robert Hugill

Picture © Ken Howard

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