Don’t forget the popcorn when you head for the Santa Fe Opera’s latest show, a drop-dead reincarnation of every steamy film noir you’ve ever seen. Make that a SFO-commissioned opera noir: The Letter, a dark, massively entertaining confection craftily put together by composer Paul Moravec and librettist Terry Teachout. If you’re old enough, you might think you’re back at the Lensic with a shadowy Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray flickering across the silver screen.
Somerset Maugham’s story, set in colonial Malaya, sprouted legs from the get-go. He turned the piece into a play, first popular in England with Gladys Cooper as his deadly femme fatale. Then came the 1929 silent with Jeanne Eagels and the 1940 film with Bette Davis playing the spider woman. Now it’s Patricia Racette’s turn to be Leslie Crosbie, Maugham’s adulterous man-eater, the dame you love to hate.
No stiff upper lip for Leslie. When she’s jilted by her lover, Geoff Hammond, she unloads her revolver into him. But she makes a whopper of a mistake: She had written an incriminating letter inviting faithless Geoff to that fatal assignation. Leslie’s dim husband Bob doesn’t put two and two together until it’s way too late, but her canny lawyer, Howard Joyce, buys back the letter (10,000 smackers—whew!), suppresses the evidence, gets the gal off and figures out that he’s been had by the wily, wicked Leslie.
That’s the stuff that makes operas. Moravec and Teachout set straight to work three years ago: Teachout chopped great hunks out of the 1927 play, and Pulitzer Prize winning composer Moravec invented the musical milieu for Maugham’s shabby little shocker.
Teachout came up with a terse book that tells the story in eight scenes and gets us out of the theater in 90 minutes plus, just like the days of Double Indemnity. Moravec’s juicy E-minor score lacks not for skillful arias and ensembles. There’s plenty of referential movie music in the manner of Bernard Herrmann. Leslie’s largely chromatic lines slip now and then into atonality.
Simple, bluff Bob gets the plain-as-Jack’s-hatband tonalities of Virgil Thomson. You’ll hear a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan in the parodic, racist Singapore Club scene. And don’t miss the two swooning Puccini-esque, E-major waltz duets for Geoff and Leslie. Patrick Summers, in his SFO debut, leads the broad, multi-layered score with elegance and sharp intelligence.
Leslie’s role originated with Racette’s voice and dramatic temperament in mind. It’s a showpiece for her big, balanced soprano, lyrical and beautifully focused, furious and calculating to the end. Anthony Michaels-Moore makes a stirring, poignant Bob Crosbie, finally aware of what he’s married. As Joyce, veteran James Maddalena sings powerfully and acts with nuanced precision.
Keith Jameson is more than capable in a smaller role, as is Rodell Rosel as Joyce’s oily legal assistant. The Other Woman in the story, Hammond’s Chinese mistress, nearly steals the show in her six minutes onstage. Mezzo Mika Shigematsu’s three-verse aria rends our hearts and stuns us, in a flash, by her expression of love’s meaning. Geoff is passionately sung by Roger Honeywell.
Don’t be fooled. Though the action is supposedly set in Singapore and environs, in this show it’s pure Tinseltown, glamorously evoked by canny director Jonathan Kent. Duane Schuler’s lighting sets up the shadowy noir effect of slow ceiling fans and those inevitable louvered jalousies. Hildegard Bechtler’s subtle, swiftly effective set comes across as one of the SFO’s best ever. Tom Ford’s costumes nail both period and style, including Leslie’s flamboyant seduction peignoir, the astonishing robe of the Chinese dragon lady and Leslie’s simple, eye-catching white gown for her immolation scene.
As Oscar Levant put it, “Strip away the phony tinsel from Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.” Never mind. This production—pure artifice and a tinsel melodrama at that—grabs us by the lapels and just won’t let go. Frankly, folks, that’s entertainment.
9 pm Wednesday, July 29
Through Aug. 18
The Santa Fe Opera