WHEN a major American opera company decides to commission a new work, the classical-music world pays attention. The appearance of a new opera, especially one by an American composer, voices optimism, determination, and a certain courage from all those involved in such a complex undertaking. San Francisco Opera's premiere of Conrad Susa's and Philip Littell's ``The Dangerous Liaisons'' signals everything that is most promising - and most troubling - in today's music scene.
San Francisco Opera's general director, Lotfi Mansouri, assembled a gifted production team in set and costume designer Gerard Howland and stage director Colin Graham. An extremely fine cast was engaged. Donald Runnicles, the company's music director, took responsibility on the podium. But the sum of these superb talents has not, ultimately, produced a satisfying music-theater experience.
Based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses,'' audiences will be gratefully familiar with the story through two fairly recent films, Stephen Frears's ``Dangerous Liaisons'' starring Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, and John Malkovich, and ``Valmont,'' Milos Foreman's oddly bungled treatment featuring Annette Bening and Colin Firth.
This version of Laclos's novel has been beautiful interpreted in Littell's moving and literary libretto. Alas, it is only in the libretto that wit and charm survive this production.
Susa does not develop clear musical characterizations nor does he effectively create moods and transitions from scene to scene. The opera doesn't build musically, managing to sound ponderously the same throughout the score. ``The Dangerous Liaisons'' becomes exactly what a liaison should never be: boring.
As the opera unfolds, budgetary limitations are evident. Eighteenth-century France never looked so meager or sparse. But even this abstract allegiance to the period would be tolerable if it didn't so continually fall short in its approximations. In an irreconcilable swing of sensibilities, the production also has moments of inane literalness, for example, snow turning into letters.
The real strength of ``The Dangerous Liaisons'' is the stubborn determination of the principals to breathe life into the opera, often overcoming immense musical limitations in the score.
Frederica von Stade's Marquise de Merteuil is astonishing. From her perfect carriage to an unearthly ability to command the stage while standing absolutely still, von Stade is a joy to observe. Unfortunately, the music does not give her - or the audience - enough understanding of Merteuil's predatory character. Consequently, von Stade wills herself into the role, and the accomplishment is both heroic and breathtaking.
Renee Fleming brings great beauty and ravishing talent to the role of Madame de Tourvel. The singer is incapable of being anything but musical. Her inner resources and Graham's sensitive direction give Tourvel her essence; it is not in the score.
Thomas Hampson's Vicomte de Valmont is both arrogant and shattering, especially in his death scene. Throughout the opera, Hampson's effort is wreathed in unbelievably beautiful and expressive singing.
The remaining cast is strong with Judith Forst (Madame de Volanges) and Johanna Meier (Madame de Rosemonde) equally relying on years of experience and musical intelligence to navigate Susa's assignments. Mary Mills (Cecile de Volanges) begins unremarkably but gradually emerges with a more distinctive sound and presence during the opera. David Hobson (Danceny) sounds small and overparted in his role. He is a fresh talent with a lovely acting ability who should garner his resources carefully. Runnicles conducts clearly and without challenge.
It is important to note that ``The Dangerous Liaisons'' is the first mainstage world premiere at the San Francisco Opera since Andrew Imbrie's ``Angle of Repose'' in 1976. A healthier cultural and economic environment would encourage the company to creatively experiment and develop interesting projects without the titanic consequences of a ``hit'' or a ``bomb.'' Such tremendous pressures on an emerging work burden everyone involved. This places the justification for doing new operas on a completely defensive footing.
Too often, new operas emerge not to enlighten but to avoid offending anyone. Even more regrettably, many new operas emerge not to enlighten but to deliberately offend everyone. Productions are created to fit neatly into a season rather than to exist on an bold tangent. Safe, middle-distance choices and solutions are reached so as not to rattle conservative boards of directors and donors. The consequences are enormous. And so, by far, most of the brave new operas are workshopped and mounted in smaller theaters.
We need to remember that 100 years ago contemporary operas were the entertainment equivalent of our film industry. New compositions were expected and anticipated as regular fare. They were considered a completely normal factor in the life of an opera theater. They should still be welcomed with that perspective - hit or miss.
``The Dangerous Liaisons'' will be telecast nationally on PBS's ``Great Performances,'' Monday, Oct. 17 (check local listings). The television medium, relying heavily on close-ups and with the text onscreen, should work sympathetically with this production.