In one example of Boston Opera Collaborative’s penchant for paring major works down to a manageable size for a small company, Gounod’s three-hour Faust shrank to BOC’s 90-minute Faust et Marguerite last year, as piano and string quartet stood in for the orchestra. The year before, the company transformed Massenet’s Werther into Les lettres de Werther, with piano accompaniment and a narrator reading excerpts from Goethe’s novel. Handel’s Rinaldo, reduced from three hours to two, featured an orchestra of nine. BOC’s current offering, Conrad Susa’s 1994 The Dangerous Liaisons, is a full-length production, but a piano has replaced the orchestra. The performance I saw Saturday at the BCA’s Plaza Theater was flawed but still worthwhile.
Every adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses has had to make compromises. Published in 1782, hardly a decade before the French Revolution, this epistolary novel runs a dense 400 pages; any remake in an audience-friendly two-hour range is going to be reductive. Even so, sex sells, and Les liaisons dangereuses has been turned into plays (notably Christopher Hampton’s West End/Broadway effort), radio serials, movies (notably the 1988 Dangerous Liaisons and the 1989 Valmont), ballets, and a TV mini-series with Catherine Deneuve, Rupert Everett, and Nastassja Kinski. Susa’s opera version is actually based on Hampton’s play rather than the novel; for his libretto, the commissioners of the opera version tried to recruit Hampton, but he wasn’t available, and they turned to actor-writer Philip Littell.
The novel’s 175 letters focus on the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. This pair used to be lovers; now they’re antagonists of a sort. At 15, Merteuil was married off to an old man who considerately died soon afterward, leaving her free for amorous pursuits. Her current circle includes Madame de Rosamonde, who’s Valmont’s aunt, and Madame de Volanges, whose 15-year-old daughter, Cécile, is destined for the aged Comte de Gercourt. Gercourt, however, previously committed the unpardonable sin of breaking off with Merteuil, and now Merteuil has no attention of allowing him to enjoy a virgin bride. Cécile is being covertly courted by her music teacher, the Chevalier de Danceny, but he’s way too polite to deflower her, so Merteuil looks around for an accomplished roué and settles on Valmont. He’s not enthusiastic: a child is no challenge, and besides, he has his eye on the Présidente de Tourvel, the virtuous, religious wife of a judge. But after Volanges acquaints Tourvel with Valmont’s history of bad behavior, Valmont gets back at Volanges by seducing Cécile.
Eventually Valmont seduces Tourvel as well. Merteuil had promised, in the event of his success, to welcome him back into her own bed, but she makes him give up Tourvel first. Meanwhile, she’s been amusing herself with Danceny, and when Valmont shows up, she declines to honor her promise. Worse, she tells Danceny that Valmont has corrupted Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel and kills him, but before he dies, Valmont bequeaths Danceny all of Merteuil’s letters. Tourvel goes mad and dies; Cécile retires to a convent; Danceny becomes a celibate Knight of Malta. Merteuil contracts smallpox and is ostracized after her letters are made public.
And that’s just the bare-bones version; I’ve left out Merteuil’s dalliances with Prévan and the Chevalier de Belleroche, and Valmont’s with a Vicomtesse who’s an old flame. So does Littell, for which one can only applaud him. His three-act libretto, much of it in rhyme, is part soap opera and part Broadway musical. What’s missing, inevitably, is the letter-writing brio that offsets the characters’ moral depravity. It’s the letters through which they disclose their stylistic identity, the letters that reveal, more than their deeds, who they are and who they would like us to think they are.
That said, Littell doesn’t do a bad job. “Most men need help. / Most men will change. / That a few men are vicious / is saddening and strange” is glib; so is Danceny’s defense of his courtship of Cécile: “Nothing bad took place. / It could be worse.” Elsewhere, however, the libretto rises to the occasion. Mertreuil’s first-act soliloquy reminds us how much easier 18th-century life was for a man then a woman. In the second-act confrontation between Cécile and Danceny, we see that Cécile knows Danceny is sleeping with Merteuil and Danceny knows Cécile is sleeping with Valmont; Littell’s point, and the novel’s, is that no one seems able to resist sex. There’s poetry in the first- and second-act finales: the “All night” trio for Valmont, Tourvel, and Merteuil and the “Night is falling fast” duet that brings Valmont and Tourvel to bed.
I’m not acquainted with Susa’s original massive score, which premiered at San Francisco Opera in 1994 with Frederica von Stade as Merteuil, Thomas Hampson as Valmont, and Renée Fleming as Tourvel. (The same cast appeared in the PBS presentation.) But Randol Bass’s reduced orchestration is effective, and so is this piano version. Susa doesn’t try for period flavor, giving us instead a basically tonal film score that ranges from teasing to queasy to dark and dirty. For the most part he supports the text, though too often he puts the ladies’ voices at a stretch to show emotion. Where he fails Choderlos is in the lack of contrast; the novel’s characters have their individual letter-writing styles, but everyone in The Dangerous Liaisons sounds pretty much the same. And though this is a “numbers” opera, it flows almost too seamlessly; you’d be hard pressed to distinguish between the scene “Children, why don’t you sing for us?” and the cavatina for Merteuil, “There is a house nearby,” that follows.
Andrea Nice’s set, as usual for this company, does a lot with a little. A central large brocade tuffet provides seating for the opening card game; the addition of silk sheets and a pillow allows it to double for the many required beds. Smaller tuffets furnished with quill pens serve as writing areas; there’s a harp and a music stand for Cécile’s lessons. The grand piano is positioned at the back of the playing area; behind that is a brass bed deconstructed and strung out and some swags of curtain. Mark Pearson’s costumes are makeshift period, with Merteuil wearing black tights under her dress and Valmont sporting what almost look like boating shoes. The supertitles are clear and well coordinated. BOC also uses the supertitle screens to identify the characters as they initially enter, one by one, which is very helpful, and to locate some scenes, such as “the Marquise de Merteuil’s secret pleasure pavilion.”
The Albany-label recording that Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater released last year runs a fraction over two hours. Saturday’s performance, under the stage direction of Greg Smucker (one of BOC’s two artistic directors), ran two hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. That afforded ample time for precise enunciation; the supertitles were hardly necessary. But the pacing might also explain why the evening seemed to drag toward the end. Music director Brendon Shapiro made the piano so colorful, I didn’t miss the orchestra. On occasion he might have provided the singers, particularly the ladies, a more discreet backing.
BOC has two casts for this production; the one I saw Saturday was not ideal. At least three generations are represented in the story, but here everyone looked to be the same age, and no one had much of a period affect. The women, in general, were strained in their upper registers, and there was a tendency to sing louder than necessary to fill the small Plaza space. In duets and trios, the performers seemed to be competing rather than collaborating.
Emily Harmon’s seductive, duplicitous Merteuil delivered the most rewarding performance; she shaped her recitative phrases with authority and displayed good comic timing. Scott Ballantine was an earnest, boyish, lightweight Valmont who belied the program’s description of him as a “notorious rake.” In the difficult role of Tourvel, Tamara Ryan was pouty and simpering, as if the character were the victim of religion, and her voice was thin. She did bloom once Tourvel surrendered herself to Valmont. Allesandra Cionco’s Cécile was all vacant smiles and grimaces; this too is a difficult role, but Cionco scarcely suggested a 15-year-old, and she was piercing at the top of her range. David Evans was better in the easier role of Danceny, a shy suitor with a soft, pleasing voice. Julia Cavallaro and Erika Mitchell were reasonably sympathetic as Volanges and Rosamonde; Cavallaro made the most of her overbearing big scene where Volanges discovers what Danceny and her daughter have been up to, and Mitchell sang Rosamonde’s act-two aria, “I have an old heart,” with wistful remorse. The minor characters — courtesan Emilie, Valmont’s solicitor Bertrand, and various servants — were portrayed well enough by Rhaea D’Aliesio, Mieczyslaw Fitzdaniel, Melanie Bacaling, Ella Joyner Horn, and Samuel de Soto.
This far from perfect production of a demanding opera is nevertheless well worth seeing; the top price is a modest $40, and if Boston Opera Collaborative (or perhaps Odyssey Opera) didn’t do it, who would? Remaining performances come on Friday March 31 with the opening-night cast (which includes Krista Marie Laskowski as Merteuil, Andrew Miller as Valmont, and Laura DellaFera as Tourvel), and Thursday March 30 and Saturday April 1 with the cast reviewed here.