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The Dangerous Liaisons

Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater

In REview MSM Dangerous Liaisons HDl 1215
Brittany Nickell, Abigail Shapiro, Timothy Murray and Anna Dugan in Dona D. Vaughn’s staging of Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons at Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater
© Carol Rosegg

"NEVER PUT ANYTHING IN WRITING," could be the moral of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel, the basis for Conrad Susa’s opera The Dangerous Liaisons, which Manhattan School of Music presented on December 9. Here, as in the popular stage and cinematic adaptions, letters are both the doing and undoing of the conniving characters, who use them to explore, exploit, and expose their own and others’ love affairs. Lest we forget, set designer Erhard Rom’s gliding panels are papered in florid penmanship against a backdrop of ripening pink and feminine blossoms. When the incriminating correspondence between the two principal schemers, Vicomte de Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, is finally revealed, letters rain down, quenching the public’s thirst for scandal. Philip Littell’s English libretto capitulates a bit too often to this device, and where several operas feature a single “letter aria,” this one has several. To break up the monotony, Valmont uses a prostitute (a brave Brittany Bellacosa) as a writing desk, but the opera often threatens to stagnate. It’s a demanding work both musically and dramatically, but Dona D. Vaughn’s savvy, economical direction allowed the singers to focus on character. Susa’s difficult score, tonal but not tuneful, provided a challenge, especially in the complex, overlapping ensembles, but the young singers rose to it, and in one notable instance, went beyond.

Anna Dugan, a second-year Master’s student at MSM, is an extraordinary young soprano to watch.  Dugan gave a thrilling, sophisticated performance as the cunning, trenchant Madame de Merteuil. From her first entrance, Dugan’s regal presence and laser focus commanded attention. Even when seated behind a scrim, waiting for her next pounce, it was impossible not to watch her. Her pliant soprano, as powerful in her chesty low register as in her creamy middle and top, was matched by exemplary diction. But it was the way Dugan fully inhabited the role that was so riveting. Every emotion and undercurrent of subtext played across her face with effortless transparency, and she never seemed to be uttering words other than her own. 

Timothy Murray, more affable than reckless, exuded little heat as Valmont, though he sang with a pleasant, round baritone. As the object of his true love, soprano Abigail Shapiro convincingly conveyed Madame de Tourvel’s delicate purity and ultimate madness, although she was overtaxed by the relentlessly high tessitura. Oliver Sewell sang with a bright, forward tenor as Chevalier de Danceny, suggesting a hint of rake potential that came to fruition when, wielding the dead Valmont’s walking stick, he established himself as heir to his dubious escapades. Danceny’s beloved, the innocent Cécile, is given vocal lines that are lyrical without melodic sweetness, but soprano Janet Todd found beauty in them. The pair were particularly impressive trying to hint about their sexual awakenings at the hands of Merteuil and Valmont without diminishing their affection for each other.

Soprano Brittany Nickell was a bustling, protective Madame de Volanges, unleashing a furious coloratura rebuke at the young lovers, while mezzo-soprano Noragh Devlin delivered Madame de Rosemonde’s bon mots with the wistful resignation of hard-won experience. There were fine cameos by baritone Michael Gracco as Bertrand and Amy Yarham as the maid Victoire, another fly caught in Merteuil’s sexual web. Tracy Dorman’s mouthwatering costumes and Dave Bova’s flattering wigs provided the necessary elegance. The chorus sang vigorously in the final scene, and conductor George Manahan did a superb job keeping pit and stage together while remaining sensitive to balance. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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