The latest entry in the unwatched video list is Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons (1994). I didn’t see this opera when it played at the San Francisco Opera, and I don’t recall how it was reviewed.
The music has been described as post romantic. I would call it spooky movie music, such as might accompany "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." It would be spooky Strauss if Strauss couldn’t write a decent melody. The best part is the spooky movie orchestration which I happen to know was done by my son’s friend Manly Romero. Good work, Manly. I wonder, though, if spooky is exactly the right feeling here--perhaps decadent would be more appropriate.
The singers never sing anything even marginally pleasant. Melodic patterns never show up again, that is assuming there were any in the first place. Every now and then when things get tense, someone will break out into coloratura. It creates an unpleasant atmosphere, which may be exactly what was intended.
The story is an excellent example of the love as perversion plot type common in the twentieth century. Everyone is up to no good.
The Marquise de Merteuil (Frederica von Stade) is angry because her current lover is getting married, to Cecile as it turns out. He isn’t in the opera, but she takes it out on everyone who is. She has hooks into the Vicomte de Valmont (Thomas Hampson) and seems to be able to order him around. He is quite smitten with Madame de Tourvel (Renée Fleming) who appears to be religious and honorable, though married, and to have wandered into this opera from somewhere else.
There is also a young couple, Chevalier de Danceny (David Hobson) and Cecile de Volanges (Mary Mills), who are flirting heavily with one another, though Cecile is engaged. The cast also includes various mothers, aunts, servants, business acquaintances, etc.
Everyone is constantly writing letters to everyone else and then using these letters to control and blackmail the sender.
The Marquise takes the young man to bed while Valmont does the same with Cecile. Meanwhile, he continues to make love to Madame de Tourvel. At the end of act I he is seen to succeed with her.
The bitch Merteuil is bored and orders Valmont to dump Tourvel. He does. Tourvel goes back to her old convent and goes mad. Everything goes from bad to worse. What a sorry business. If I actually liked the music, I might think it would work as an opera. Singable melodies would have helped a lot.
The high-priced talent were excellent in their roles. Thomas Hampson is completely incapable of projecting the kind of sliminess managed by John Malkovich in the movie and seems more victim than victimizer. Frederica is admirably disgusting and loathsome. Renée is her divine self.