Opera Review: Anne Midgette on 'The Letter,' 'La Traviata' at Santa Fe Opera

Natalie Dessay and Saimir Pirgu as tragic lovers in a calculated
Natalie Dessay and Saimir Pirgu as tragic lovers in a calculated "La Traviata." (By Ken Howard)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 27, 2009

SANTA FE, N.M. -- When John Crosby founded the summer opera company here in 1957, he came up into the hills north of town and fired a gun to find a setting with the perfect acoustics and the right echo.

Shots were fired again Saturday night, opening the world premiere of the opera "The Letter." But they sounded a little flimsy, as if fired from a cap gun. The opera could have offered a lot more bang for the buck.

The Santa Fe Opera's open-air theater, its sides and backstage open to the mountain night, remains one of the best places in the country to hear opera and has introduced many leading singers. This season marks the start of the company's third administration since its founding (Charles MacKay, formerly of Opera Theater of St. Louis, has succeeded Richard Gaddes as general director), and the season follows the traditional formula of five productions that mingle war horses and more unusual repertoire, with a few established singers leading generally young casts.

Most notable, this season, are Natalie Dessay's first "La Traviata" -- a role the French soprano is scheduled to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala -- and "The Letter," Santa Fe's first commission since Bright Sheng's "Madame Mao" in 2003.

Unfortunately, neither production hits the mark. Each appeared to be the result of a group of talented people energetically following the instructions in some hypothetical opera playbook and proudly producing an array of carefully wrought details while entirely missing the actual point.

"The Letter" is by an impressively credentialed team -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and the prolific theater critic Terry Teachout (who has written in the past for The Washington Post) -- working, laudably, in the service of entertainment.

Basing their opera on the Somerset Maugham play and short story that inspired two Hollywood films (including William Wyler's 1940 version with Bette Davis) and two made-for-TV adaptations, they set out to write an opera that would match George Bernard Shaw's description of "Il Trovatore": dramatic, fast-paced, appealing to the senses rather than the intellect.

But they failed. "The Letter" is all form and little content. The material, to be sure, is eminently dramatic: Maugham based it on the true story of a married woman who killed her lover in a jealous rage, then claimed she was acting in self-defense because he tried to rape her. (Maugham upped the ante, and found his title, by having the heroine, Leslie Crosbie, write the victim, Geoff Hammond, a letter that becomes potentially incriminating evidence; her lawyer buys the letter to save her life.)

But in adhering to the rules of opera -- we must have arias and ensembles -- Moravec and librettist Teachout repeatedly show a tin ear for the exigencies of drama. The arias keep obtruding at inopportune moments to spell out things that don't need spelling out ("What have I done? I've killed him. He is gone forever"). They bring the action to a screeching halt.

And Moravec's music, though adroitly written, stays behind the words, supporting the action rather than dictating it. The arias hardly emerge, and the music proceeds one phrase at a time.

Santa Fe rolled out the red carpet for its production. Patricia Racette, Anthony Michaels-Moore and James Maddalena were the three leads; Patrick Summers conducted; and the fashion designer Tom Ford designed costumes so strongly influenced by the 1940 film that he tried to dress Racette like Bette Davis -- managing to make a beautiful, curvaceous woman look dumpy.

The singers did their best with roles from which most character or interest had been stripped. Michaels-Moore sang strongly but played a wimpy husband; Racette was as passionate as possible playing a woman reduced to cliche.

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