OPERA / Safe sex: David Patrick Stearns on Susa's Dangerous Liaisons

How odd that Les Liaisons Dangereuses had to wait more than two centuries to have its operatic tendencies realised on such a grand scale. Though there have been chamber operas based on the story, the San Francisco Opera has treated its new incarnation, titled The Dangerous Liaisons, to a decorous Colin Graham production with Frederica Von Stade as the scheming Marquise de Merteuil, Thomas Hampson as the sexually ruthless Valmont and Renee Fleming as his prey, Madame de Tourvel. And if the score by Conrad Susa doesn't get as much attention as its interpreters, it's because its ambitions don't quite equal those of the characters it portrays.

The 64-year-old Susa has always been a maverick on the American opera scene, exploring jazz, pop and other frankly tonal influences in his stage adaptation of the Anne Sexton verse collection Transformations and the darker aspects of Americana in the bracing Black River.

With The Dangerous Liaisons, he eschews the weight and pathos of Black River for something more homogeneous, congenial and slightly less satisfying. The overture embodies much of what is to come with gracefully cavorting melodies amid a lush string backdrop suggesting the opulence of aristocratic, pre-revolutionary France without specific period reference beyond occasional, unpredictable outbursts from the harpsichord.

In striving for stylistic neutrality, it comes out sounding like Richard Strauss on sedatives or Marc Blitzstein in Regina mode. Though there's a certain amount of psychological characterisation in the wind writing, the approach is sometimes too generalised to get at the venom behind the veneer.

Even so, it's a stageworthy and absorbing piece. Though Philip Littell's libretto lacks the distilled insights of Christopher Hampton's stage version, and telescopes some of the surprises out of the action, it has some interesting twists of its own. That Valmont stumbles into more than he bargained for in his affair with Tourvel is shown by their telepathic relationship during their agonised but separate deaths. And while, in Hampton's version, the Marquise ends up socially ruined, her final notes here are expressions of defiance and survival.

The Marquise marks a departure for Von Stade, who is perhaps more usually associated with Mozart. While she sometimes seems a little vocally under-powered, she projects a steely characterisation that will no doubt grow more vivid as she gains more confidence in the music. Sadly, that's just what much of the cast and orchestra lacked, despite solid conducting from Donald Runnicles. Most of the notes were there but the comprehension was not. Maybe no amount of acclimatisation will ever make Hampson a sexy Valmont - one felt mostly his brutality - or Fleming a three-dimensional Tourvel. But then, maybe Les Liaisons Dangereuses was never meant to be a grand, star-studded affair at all, but something altogether more intimate.

'Dangerous Liaisons': 21, 23, 27 Sept, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, USA (booking: 010 1 415 864 3300)

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