Presented by Boston Opera Collaborative
Music by Conrad Susa and Libretto by Philip Littell
Directed by Greg Smucker
Music direction by Brendon Shapiro
Based on the scandalous 18th century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Review by Gillian Daniels
Warning: Sexual content and statutory rape.
(Boston, MA) Sex, manipulation, treachery, and high society. There’s a reason the original French novel was mined for a cheesy ‘90’s film about rich, spoiled teenagers.
Conrad Susa’s 1994 opera adaptation plays up the boiling corruption beneath the surface of polite, well-groomed society. Marquise de Merteuil (Krista Marie Laskowski/Emily Harmon) is a well-regarded socialite widow who secretly plots for her former lover, playboy Vicomte de Valmont (Andrew Miller/Scott Ballantine), to seduce teenage Cecile de Volanges (Jennifer Caraluzzi/Allesandra Cionco). But Valmont is hesitant to be a part of Marquise de Merteuil’s plans. Not because he’s a better person, of course, but because he’s more focused on his own plans to make the pious Madame de Tourvel (Laura DellaFera/Tamara Ryan) cheat on her husband with him.
Why are Marquise de Mertueil and Vicomte de Valmont so sadistic? Merteuil sings of developing a clever, political mind after being married off at fifteen. Now she schemes against men who do her wrong by hurting the women who are closest to them, like innocent Cecile, engaged to one of her former lovers. She has only ever found her intellectual match in Valmont, who is as cruel as she is with less prompting. He largely seems to have just been spoiled by those around him, like his kindly aunt Madame de Rosemonde (Sigourney Tanner/Erika Mitchell). He happily frequents whore houses and looks to “obtain” otherwise unobtainable women.
The short version of why these two are so very cruel is, simply, that the society in which they live allows them to be.
The question is not, “Why meddle with innocent people?” but “If I can ruin someone’s life for my own pleasure, why shouldn’t I?” Though the French novel takes place pre-French Revolution, the continued parallels to social conflicts today are haunting. Monsters lurk in the most beautiful and alluring of forms, Dangerous Liaisons tells us, and they will say anything to make us do what they wish.
The music is strong and dark, though much like black coffee, not to my own taste. What stood out to me, instead, were how strong every performance was. And the story!
Why get wrapped up in each note when de Mertueil is plotting her next retreat to her decadent pleasure pavilion? The opera asks us to see her as evil, but she is flamboyantly evil in a way that’s so very fun to watch. The audience I was with was absolutely amused at the fervor of her craftiness and, certainly, the very existence of her pleasure pavilion.
The staging is superb. My compliments go out to Stage Director Greg Smucker in utilizing space so well and Costume Designer Mark Pearson in seamlessly blending 18th century costuming with modern flourishes. I envy Mertueil’s outfits, especially the ones that appear to be influenced by the wardrobe of a New Jersey native who revels in being called a “cougar” while emptying bottles of wine with her friends.
The Boston Opera Collaborative has assembled a treasure box of a show. This is especially impressive because the story, where characters happily torture innocents before succumbing to punishment themselves, can be a hard watch. Audiences largely familiar with “Cruel Intentions” (1999) may be shocked at how many characters are picked off. It’s well worth the tickets, however, for fans of opera and the casually curious to see such wonderful precision on display.
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