Letters of a Love Betrayed

Letters of a Love Betrayed – An opera to a libretto by Donald Sturrock based on a short story by Isabel Allende

Analia Torres – Mary Plazas
Priest / El Chofer Loco – Paul Keohone
Eugenio Torres – Jonathan May
Mother Superior / Gloria Cardenes – Arlene Rolph
Luis Torres – Christopher Steele
Camino Torres – Erwan Hughes
José Lopez – Richard Edgar-Wilson

The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble
Michael Rafferty

Michael McCarthy – Director
Colin Richmond – Set designer
Holly McCarthy – Costume designer
Ace McCarron – Lighting designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 2 October, 2009
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Music Theatre Wales has an impressive track record with mounting and touring contemporary opera. Its latest venture, “Letters of a Love Betrayed”, with both the composer Eleanor Alberga and the librettist Donald Sturrock given firmly equal billing on the cover of the printed programme, is based on a short story by Isabel Allende that, on the face of it, has enough material for a really gutsy melodrama on a positively Verdian scale. An orphaned heiress, brought up in a convent, is betrayed by her avaricious uncle into a loveless marriage with his violent son, so that they can get their hands on her estate. After her husband is killed in a slick bit of rough justice, she discovers the true identity of the writer of the tender love-letters that wooed her into the disastrous marriage and is empowered to take responsibility for her own life. So there are opportunities galore for a heady mix of sex and death, all wrapped round South American Roman Catholicism, in all its visceral, superstitious glory.

The main problem is that the libretto, in its overheated, sub-Tennessee Williams way, is almost strong enough to stand alone as a play, and there are many passages where it delivers too much and effectively outmanoeuvres Alberga’s sparely written, economical score. Contemporary opera-goers are used to a seemingly arbitrary vocal line, underpinned by an accompaniment that is reactive rather than taking the lead. In that respect, “Letters of a Love Betrayed” is by no means the worst offender, but it means that much of the vocal music stays at much the same level of intensity, only blossoming in the purely instrumental music, which successfully evokes a steamy South American atmosphere through the use of tangos and folk-music and cleverly orchestrated nature music.

Vocally, the music is at its most convincing for the claustrophobic worlds (first the convent childhood, then a hopeless marriage) of the heroine Analia, played by the formidable Mary Plazas in full scenery-chewing mode. She was a touching victim and displayed her considerable histrionic skills in an impressive breakdown. Her wicked, weak uncle is too two-dimensional and stolid a character for Jonathan May to do much with, and he mainly just stood and delivered. As his psychotic son Luis, Christopher Steele had a good line in whining, offended Latin macho pride and threw himself around the stage with abandon. Two characters – Luis’s rough-neck bar-room buddy played with great verve by Paul Keohone, and a local tart-with-a-heart given a larger-than-life performance by Arlene Ralph – injected some much-needed urgency and are complemented by some equally vivid music.

Unless you know the short story, the ending, a twist with a whiff of magic realism, does come as a bolt from the blue, but it is not one that can carry the full weight of a would-be transcendent, liberating finale very much along the lines of the closing pages of “Jenůfa”.

The 14-strong instrumental ensemble played up the music’s atmospheric passages, urged on by Michael Rafferty’s incisive, no-nonsense conducting. Colin Richmond’s brutalist, concrete-bunker set, doing duty for convent, estate house and rundown bar emphasised Analia’s imprisoning reality. Michael McCarthy’s direction could have been a bit more flexible, but otherwise is perfectly serviceable.

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