Forget Casanova. Forget Don Juan and de Sade. Over the past 10 years, the Vicomte de Valmont, that gleefully amoral protagonist of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, has become our significant seducer. Christopher Hampton’s 1985 RSC stage adaptation (seen in New York with the masterful Alan Rickman as Valmont) opened the floodgates at a time when the anything-goes ’70s had yielded to an era when liaisons really were dangereuses. What followed were two Hollywood movies, a revival of Roger Vadim’s 1960 Les Liaisons Dangereuses (jazzily reptilian and, in many ways, the best of the film adaptations), a Heiner Müller avant-garde theater piece called Quartet, a ballet, and countless opportunistic reprintings of the original book.

The novel—part costume romance, part horror yarn, with episodes to delight chicken hawks and churchgoers alike—revolves around Valmont and his lover, the Marquise de Merteuil. A pair of erotic adventurers, they spur each other on to the sexual equivalent of extreme sports. The story focuses most of its attention on Valmont’s seduction of the 15-year-old Cécile de Volanges (a girl Merteuil doesn’t want a troublesome ex-lover to get as a virgin bride) and the happily married, Bible-reading Madame de Tourvel. But the paths of heartless victimization seldom run smooth, and before you know it Valmont is in love with Tourvel, at war with Merteuil, and dead in a duel. Merteuil gets her requisite 18th-century-novel comeuppance when her letters become public, revealing her as the puppeteer pulling Valmont’s dirty little strings.

Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons is a new opera (it previewed in San Francisco four years ago), and if this were the 1950s it would sound like one. In spite of its flirtations with Stephen Sondheim, Liaisons most often evokes the postwar neo-Romantic operas of Barber, Floyd, and Menotti, bathed in ’50s-Hollywood movie-music orchestrations. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful—it plays like a moody tone poem full of the ersatz ardor and paranoia of a jaded rake—but it ultimately feels a bit featureless. Arias, written gratefully for the voice, grow and recede into the musical fabric very naturally, but nothing is melodically memorable enough to fight the sense of attractive note-spinning. This is most damaging in the central portion of Act 1, where Philip Littell’s generally canny libretto retreats from direct, dramatic confrontation into a sequence of arias based on letters from the novel. The structure is static, and Susa’s music, though unfailingly lovely, doesn’t exactly rivet one’s attention.

Anne Manson conducts a dark, lush reading of the score, though, and the Washington Opera production, imported from the San Francisco Opera, certainly makes a pretty package. Gerald Howland’s costumes are meticulously period-conscious, and his clever set, with its flat, projected opulence and mirrored surfaces, is appropriately elegant and coldhearted. Colin Graham has directed Liaisons like a good piece of theater, but the cast has to work hard against some shorthand in the libretto. The Valmont-Merteuil relationship takes a while to emerge, the bulk of Valmont’s seduction of Tourvel has already taken place when the curtain rises, their happy union is never really established, and Cécile’s “sentimental education” is given very short shrift. (If you’re going to write a ’50s opera, at least get the old-fashioned storytelling right.)

Generally speaking, the WashOp performers create believable characters, acting credibly and singing with healthy, attractive, slightly anonymous voices. But when compared with the singers at the world premiere (which I caught in San Francisco and in its later PBS telecast), this has to be considered very much a “second” cast. In the main quartet of roles, only Mary Mills—an adorable and bright-voiced Cécile—remains. On the West Coast, Valmont, Merteuil, and Tourvel were played by Thomas Hampson, Frederica von Stade, and Renée Fleming, respectively. That was a heady lineup, boasting not only three of the most ravishing voices of our generation, but also a trio more nuanced in the acting department, and more physically suited to their roles, than the current group. By comparison, Dale Duesing is a one-note Valmont, both vocally and dramatically, Elizabeth Bishop a less-than-aristocratic Merteuil, and Susan Patterson a more weathered and histrionic Tourvel (though she sounds mighty sweet when singing softly). Again, of course, San Francisco was a tough act to follow, and the current cast acquits itself well enough. In supporting roles, special mention should go to the always fine Linda Mabbs and Judith Forst.

Liaisons aficionados will find the Susa opera worth a try. Virgins coming to the story for the first time should rent the Vadim flick. It’s an icy blast of amour that feels closer to the original (for all its updated trysting on beaches and in ski lodges) than the grand, period manners of this new-old opera.

At last week’s press conference to announce the 1998-99 WashOp season, a charming elder gent rose to express his displeasure with sex being graphically represented on the opera stage (which it evidently was somewhere in the melee that was Pagliacci). He asked whether there’d be anymore hanky-panky in upcoming productions, and Plácido Domingo reassured him that family fare is WashOp’s main concern. Said Domingo solemnly, “We are a conservative company.”

Duh.

When another colleague asked if we’d be hearing operas written in less traditional musical languages, like the works of Philip Glass and John Adams, Domingo expressed his desire to produce Andre Previn’s new opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire. (This would be like asking a club owner whether he plans to book riot-grrrl or triphop bands into his space and getting the reply, “Yes, Fleetwood Mac is scheduled for next month.”)

I piped up with a vote for more productions like last year’s hot, expressionistic, modern-dress take on Elektra. Absolutely, answered Domingo. Fresh approaches to directing and design will always be welcome, as long as such productions are kept in a “good balance” with more traditional stagings. Of course, those traditional stagings have outnumbered the risk-taking ones six to one last season and seven to one this season, and next season appears to be a shutout by the 19th-century team. Some balance.

So the bad news is: True believers in opera as a living, growing art form are still staring at a flatline. But the good news—and it’s very good—is that WashOp’s ’98-99 lineup is starry, ambitious, and substantive to an unprecedented degree. Tristan und Isolde and Boris Godunov are massive, groundbreaking works in the repertoire of every self-respecting international opera house. Their inclusion signals a rite of passage for WashOp and redresses both the company’s recent neglect of the Russian canon and its long-term bias against Wagner.

On the Mediterranean end of things, it was inspired of Domingo to chose Simon Boccanegra—that dark and enigmatic beauty among Verdi’s later works—as well as Giordano’s Fedora, which will give D.C. audiences a rare dose of non-Puccinian verismo. And if those two aren’t rare enough birds, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s 1927 opera Sly will have its American premiere here. Also welcome is Saint-Saë#ns’ Samson et Dalila, which has been gaining ground in world opera houses but is still a rarity in Washington. Mozart’s Abduction From the Seraglio is not exactly commonplace either (though it does have a track record at WashOp, and many Mozartians would likely trade it for a chance to see a full-scale production of the too-long absent Idomeneo or La Clemenza di Tito). The annual American slot will be admirably filled by Robert Ward’s vividly dramatic (if, unsurprisingly, conservatively composed) adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Just as newsworthy as this rare and heavyweight repertoire is the way next season is being cast. Without losing the core of young American and international singers WashOp has always sought to maintain, the company has suddenly stepped into Met-size shoes. Come fall, we’ll hear Domingo and Mirella Freni in Fedora; Simon Estes, Marcello Giordani, and Bruno Pola in Boccanegra; and Denyce Graves and flavor-of-the-month tenor superstar José Cura in Samson (with Domingo conducting). Spring brings Samuel Ramey as Boris Godunov and José Carreras as Sly.

This is a tremendously exciting roster, and any new night-of-a-thousand-stars aesthetic needn’t auger an artistic sellout. If WashOp doesn’t lose sight of the important things—matching dramatic values to its already high musical ones, fostering new works, maintaining an experimental component in each season, expanding the stylistic and global reach of repertoire, balancing star power against the exciting flood of new talent—the company may yet fuse the adrenaline of its early years and the opulence it seems to be growing into, and truly become the flagship of U.S. opera companies.CP

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