Pop opera: ‘Letter’ arrives stamped with fiendish passion

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By The Staff


That’s the opening note of “The Letter” the Santa Fe Opera’s newly commissioned production that opened this week. A flimsy pistol shot repeated five more times demands immediate attention.

Then, over a dead body and around a woman in a nightgown, a non-stop bullet train rolled through.

There was never any question about who did it. Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a plantation-owner in British Malaya, pursues her victim in from the veranda and shoots him again and again.

“What have I done?” she sings, which happens to rhyme explicitly with “gun.”

The question was why.  Was Geof Hammond, the interloping neighbor played mostly from the grave by Roger Honeywell, attempting rape as Leslie would claim to the investigating officer, or was there another motive? Was her concern for her dull but devoted husband going to keep her from the noose?

Leslie is performed by Patricia Racette, well-known in the opera world as a strong-character who can handle complex soprano roles, like Madame Butterfly, which she has performed more than a dozen times at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Racette has a high vocal range, which she thoroughly used and an extraordinary ability to articulate even as she sings. She went from good to bad to fiendish, with ease.

The opera has class, going back to a play by Somerset Maugham based on his short story of the same name relating a 13-year-old true yarn he was told during a visit to the former British colony between the wars. This lends an exotic period atmosphere of louvered windows, doors with transoms, bent coolies, billowing drapes and ceiling fans with lazy hypnotic shadows.

The opera also descends from two movies.  Most notably, the 1940 movie with William Wyler at the helm, starred Bette Davis as Mrs. Crosbie. They captured two of the five Oscars awarded to that year’s Best Picture.

In fact, there are so many levels to “The Letter,” it was already operatic. But add to that a Pulitzer-prize winning composer, Paul Moravec and a blogging, twitting metropolitan critic, Terry Teachout, who wrote the libretto.

Teachout’s posts on Arts Journal, www.artsjournal.com, have possibly taken us farther into the creative process of opera-making than the world has ever known.

Buttonholed for a second just before Saturday’s premiere, he said his 50-plus entries since the spring of 2006 were going to be a book.

Moravec has also been extraordinarily forthcoming about the creative struggles of the opera composer, which he compared to straddling two horses in a circus ring, (one representing the drama and the other, the score). His composition was rich, allusive and challenging.

My favorite parts were the sets by Hildegard Bechtler, Duane Schuler’s lighting and Tom Ford’s costumes. Tom Ford, the celebrity fashion designer did a great job with the neatly dressed men in their white ducks, beautifully tailored but not ostentatious; and Leslie’s take-me nightgown and repentant frocks.

 The whole cocktail bore the unmistakable signs of a great director, otherwise known as Jonathan Kent, who threw out Teachout’s detailed stage directions and fit all the pieces together.

There was a very nice “MacGuffin,” which is a term for a piece of diverting business. It happened during the second recounting of the murder, when the problem of how to get the body off the stage was cleverly solved by lighting the jungle in the background as the relatively posh jail room set swung out from the other side of the stage, with our lying little two-faced vixen busy with her lace work.  

Then, there was another MacGuffin at the end that may need a little work. You either had to be sitting very close or paying perfect attention to catch what happens in the last couple of minutes. I had to ask.

Another question about a new opera is does it have legs? Will it ripen into the repertoire? Everybody seems to hope so. “The Letter” in all its forms seems to be holding up quite well. The opera version, after its first performance, has both punch and pop but still has a way to go.

Editor’s Note: Carl Newton, now in his 14th year as a docent at the Santa Fe Opera, contributed a number of  insights to this review.