MUSICAL OPINION: January/February 2010
Letters of a love betrayed is a chamber opera which the librettist, Donald Sturrock, based on a story from Tales of Eva Luna (1989), by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende. Jointly commissioned by Theatre Wales and the Royal Opera House, it was premiered at the ROH’s Linbury Studio Theatre, ably conducted by Michael Rafferty. Set somewhere in the Andes, the story recounts the life of a young, orphaned girl, Analía Torres, brought up in a convent. Her life is lonely and tinged with sadness. When, on a rare visit, her uncle tries to persuade her to relinquish the land she has inherited, she rebels, telling him that she plans to marrywhen she comes of age and look after the estate herself. Though this comes spontaneously out of her imagination, she does indeed marry. Her husband, who falsely wooed her with surro-gate letters, turns out to be not only a layabout but her uncle’s son, acting to fulfil his father’s ambitions. The theme of the story, therefore, is disappointment and the enduring pain of unsatisfactory human relations, culminating inevitably in disloyalty. This seems to have been the spark for Eleanor Alberga’s poignant and searching music.
The musical thread is delicate, finely-woven and utterly compelling. The composer has found a structure of her own, atonal but at the same time offering the warmth of harmony, with vocal lines that are perfect for singing. Occasionally, the music slips seamlessly into a world of local colour. Intoxicating South American rythms invade the stage with a gentle, nostalgic touch, before disappearing once again beneath the waves. These episodes provide contrast but not contradiction.
The characters are sharply etched, not only by the singing and acting on the stage, but by the orchestral sonorities that accompany and define them. With single instruments used in ever-changing combinations Eleanor Alberga has created a score rich in colours, and balanced with the technique of a skilled orchestrator.
Mary Plazas, in the leading role, presented Analía with sympathy and outstanding artistic singing, revealing her increasing confidence as she grew from young girl to woman. The ‘happy’ ending, when she finally finds the true writer of the love letters, a man with a physical disability just as she had predicted, was as poignant as any moment in the opera. Amongst many other memorable performances were Christopher Steele’s energetic and youthful portrayal of the husband and Arlene Rolph’s versatility, embracing the unlikely dual roles of Mother Superior and prostitute with uncanny ease. The minimal sets were unobtrusive but effective, allowing the inner feelings of the characters on stage to emerge without conflict into reality. From my otherwise excellent seat only part of the subtitles was visible but, given the generally clear diction, this was a minor annoyance.
Above all, the evening belonged to the music. One may encounter a new work that impresses by its invention and cleverness, but how often is one moved at first hearing, or even at second or third, by the humanity of the music? The lonliness, the yearning reminds me of Debussy’s Pelléas. One recognises that an experience has been special when, after the performance, homeward bound in a crowded underground train, the emotion of the opera lingers long and deeply. This is a remarkably beautiful work, remarkable not simply because it is the composer’s first opera, but because it draws one so sensitively into a world of believable emotion – not extreme, not passionate, but deriving genuinely from the condition humaine.