After three film versions and a stage play, further explorations of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses” might appear redundant. Unfortunately, Conrad Susa’s operatic setting, though beautifully mounted and sung by the San Francisco Opera in September’s world premiere and filmed for PBS, heightens the suspicion.
Philip Littell’s libretto, much of it in rhyming couplets, does deal smartly with the original novel, consisting as it did of an extended exchange of letters among the principal characters. And Susa, whose previous works produced in San Francisco include a marvelously witty setting of Anne Sexton’s “Transformations, ” would seem the right composer to frost the text with music reflective of its diamond-hard wit.
Instead, Susa has encased the text in a musical blur, a continuous, nondescript recitative that seldom rises to the heights expressed by its characters. The marvelous, cynical exchanges between the world-weary Marquise de Merteuil (Frederica von Stade) and the jaded rake Valmont (Thomas Hampson) evoke a kind of Gian Carlo Menotti imitation without the tunes.
The music goes by both fast, as in a splendid, hysterical aria for Madame de Tourvel (Judith Forst), and slow, as in scenes for Cecile de Volanges (Mary Mills) and the Chevalier de Danceny (David Hobson), without really changing tone. The shadings come mainly from Gerard Howland’s richly colored sets and costumes.
A pity, because the performances are generally so fine. Under Donald Runnicles’ surging conducting, von Stade and Hampson in the principal roles are splendidly observed characters, supported by a generally able cast.
In many ways, you couldn’t ask for a more convincing argument on behalf of a respected composer’s promising new opera. This time around, alas, the promise is only partially fulfilled.