Boston Opera Collaborative presents Susa’s dark and erotic “Dangerous Liaisons”

March 25, 2017 at 12:18 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Boston Opera Collaborative presented the Boston premiere of Conrad Susa's "The Dangerous Liaisons" Friday night.

Boston Opera Collaborative presented the Boston premiere of Conrad Susa’s “The Dangerous Liaisons” Friday night.

When it comes to opera, Boston audiences have witnessed a healthy dose of offbeat repertoire from its smaller companies. In the vanguard of these organizations is Boston Opera Collaborative, which has offered thrilling new takes on established works as well as pieces not often heard in live performance.

Friday night at the Plaza Theatre, the company performed Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons. Though performed with minimalist staging and piano accompaniment, BOC’s production was a feast for the eyes and ears and an important local premiere for a rarely heard work.

The story, based on an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, unfolds like a soap opera. Indeed, it has been made into movies, notably Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1988) and Cruel Intentions (1999).

Like those films, Conrad Susa’s opera, completed in 1994, tells a twisted tale of sexual conquest and revenge. The Vicomte de Valmont is a rake known for his ability to rob women of their wedding nights. He has an accomplice in the Marquise de Merteuil, who, like Valmont, is a sexual deviant who sets up a plan to deflower the future bride of the Comte de Gercourt. 

No character comes away from this story unscathed. Innocent Cecile, who is betrothed to Gercourt, succumbs to the advances of Valmont. Her love affair with her music teacher, the Chevalier de Danceny, as a result is forever changed as she imagines a situation where she can be married and have a “friend,” or two, on the side. 

Valmont, meanwhile, is torn over his affection and attraction to the married Presidente de Tourvel. She resists his letters—one written while he was in a compromising position with another women as a group looked on—and he feels that he has met a woman who he feels he does not deserve. He wins her, but the relationship is short-lived.

Without spoiler alerts, suffice to say that the opera hinges on betrayal and destruction. In the end, the Marquise sings that what one learns is not enough to survive the pains of life.

Susa’s music is nimble and colorful, full of Mozartean running lines that are set inside a colorful harmonic language that resembles Debussy. The vocal parts are tricky, featuring wide leaps and intricate counterpoint that is woven into thick blankets of sound. It’s a resplendent score that manages to sparkle even when only heard with piano and voices.

The BOC boasts a stellar cast, and the opera beamed from the performances of fine singer-actors.

Krista Marie Laskowski brought a darkly lyrical soprano to the role of Merteuil. She found the character’s many layers of personality, from seductive temptress to a cunning, angry woman trapped in a man’s world.

Andrew Miller, as Valmont, sang with a bold yet creamy tone that captured the sympathetic side to the character. Valmont, though a notorious womanizer, ends up being a likable fellow by opera’s end. In the middle of the story, though, he’s a scoundrel. Miller’s letter aria with Tourvel was rich and radiant while the performers acted out a scene that managed to be both erotic and terrifying.

As Tourvel, Laura DellaFera found both the wide-eyed innocence and heartbroken sides of a woman who ultimately descends into madness and death. DellaFera’s singing was nimble and radiant when called upon, and she effortlessly pulled out soft high notes in what seemed to be the opera’s most punishing role.

Jennifer Caraluzzi’s Cecile, heard through lines of silvery grace, was the girl next door who is sadly corrupted by Valmont. She had a simpatico partner in Fran Rogers, whose bright, beaming tenor voice captured the valiance of the Chevalier de Danceny.

Shannon Grace sang with cool, calming tones as Madame de Volanges, Cecile’s mother and Merteuil’s cousin. And Sigourney Tanner brought a darkly powerful voice to the role of Madame Rosemonde, Valmont’s wealthy aunt. Grace and Tanner’s singing by Tourvel’s bedside near the end of the opera drove home two of the opera’s themes: one of caring warmth as one character faces death; another of hopeless darkness in a life destroyed by betrayal.

The original story was an epistolary novel, and Greg Smucker’s production made deft use of the form through the staging of simultaneous scenes. The many letter arias in the score were sharply staged, with the blocking keeping characters in motion. The sets were simple but effective, with raised circular platforms used for beds, couches, and desks in the work’s numerous bedroom scenes. Mark Pearson’s eighteenth-century costumes were bright and colorful.

At the piano, Brendon Shapiro played with grace and crispness. Dynamic shading was effective and well judged, and the work’s tricky and creamy lyrical lines came of with energy.

In an age when many opera companies are cutting back or closing due to shrinking budgets, companies like Boston Opera Collaborative are a breath of fresh air. Their performance of Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons shows that it is always possible to tell a vivid story through the simplest of means.

The Dangerous Liaisons runs through April 1 at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.

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