With new operas routinely getting drubbed by press and public alike, the San Francisco Opera’s first commissioned work in 18 years should prove a refreshing success story. “The Dangerous Liaisons” sports significant virtues — Bay Area composer Conrad Susa’s attractively melodic score, Philip Littell’s intelligent libretto, a first-rate cast, and the 1782 source novel’s appeal in the wake of recent popular stage and film incarnations.
Yet so much pretty music does rub against the grain of Laclos’ cruel narrative. It will take repeat hearings and future productions more dark-hued than Colin Graham’s S.F. bow to ascertain whether the work has enduring shelf life. (A Dutch team is already at work on another operatic “Liaisons” interp, skedded for 1996.) Meanwhile, Susa & Co. should enjoy a few seasons’ staging on the international circuit.
The now-familiar tale is cleanly presented here, exposing corrupt 18 th-century French aristocratic lives in a web of seductions and betrayals. Masterminding them all — until her final comeuppance — is the wealthy Marquise de Merteuil (Frederica von Stade), whose spotless rep hides private amorality. Her erotic crime partner is rakish Valmont (Thomas Hampson). When he sets sights on virtuous widow Tourvel (Renee Fleming), sometime lover Merteuil cuts a deal that aids her own vengeful agenda. Among those ruined in the process are hapless youngsters Cecile (Mary Mills) and Danceny (David Hobson).
Though ostensibly inspired by artists of the story’s era, Susa’s work here sounds more like late Gallic Romanticism — melancholy and lushly orchestrated, with vocal lines of sporadic keening appeal. The occasionally dissonant score also sports tempo shifts to which singers are barely tethered. Whether the many alluring individual passages will hold up under recording scrutiny is an open question.
Littell lays out the complex storyline in witty, concise form, retaining the book’s epistolary format via arias and back-projected script, without inducing dramatic stasis. Still, “Liaisons” ought to carry more terrible power than the collaborators have wrought here. Music and text considerations aside, the production glides too easily across cumulative disasters. The cast, nearly ideal in vocal terms, hasn’t been directed to limn the emotional extremes — Tourvel’s purity, Merteuil’s heartlessness, Valmont’s crumbling cynicism — enough for full impact. (Mezzo-soprano von Stade comes closest, and may eventually define this role.)
Odder still is the lack of palpable erotic heat. The scenario is full of sensual activity and desire. The characters frequently sing from their beds, yet the sum effect is curiously dispassionate.
Gerard Howland’s cost-cutting design package (which, with significant variations, will turn up in seven of this season’s shows) keeps matters fluid via projections, mirror strips, a turntable, suspended panels, etc. Yet the stage often seems bare, visual opportunities minimized. (The austerity is much more apt in a concurrent “Macbeth.”) Just one image seizes the imagination, as a mournful snowfall turns into raining leaflets that will destroy Merteuil’s schemes forever.
Troubling as these flaws seem in retrospect, “The Dangerous Liaisons” still honors its source material sufficiently to engross, if not quite thrill and devastate, as the best Laclos adaptations have. And one can’t underestimate the satisfaction of discovering a new American opera that’s neither pop nor pastiche , nor dauntingly atonal. That pleasure alone should afford Susa’s work some legs. It’s already been tapped for PBS broadcast, and conductor Donald Runnicles’ superb reading merits preservation on disc.