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Opera Review: The End Of The Affair

By Steven A. Kennedy

Last year, the Houston Grand Opera received notice in FSD for its premiere production of Rachel Portman's The Little Prince. More recently, throughout the month of March 2004, Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair got an operatic treatment featuring music by Jack Heggie and a libretto by Heather McDonald (her first). This is Heggie's second opera, the first being based on Dead Man Walking, which received a recording on the Erato label.

This was the 29th world premiere for the Houston Grand Opera. The organization has a long history of introducing contemporary opera, many by Carlisle Floyd. John Adams, Michael Daugherty and Robert Moran are a few more familiar composers who have had works premiered there. Jack Heggie is a noted composer and performer and has held composer-in-residencies at the San Francisco Opera and the Eos Orchestra. The latter will be familiar for its concerts of film music.

Greene's best-selling 1951 novel takes place during World War II and uses a love triangle of sorts to develop deeper themes of personal religious struggle. It is all set against the devastation in London during this time. There are two film adaptations. The earliest version, from 1955, featured Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson and Peter Cushing with a score by Benjamin Frankel. Neil Jordan's recent 1999 acclaimed version included music by Michael Nyman and starred Julianne Moore, Ralph Fiennes and Stephen Rea. The HGO's cast features the husband-and-wife Australian's Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes -- who appeared in Portman's opera.

Heather McDonald's libretto is filled with referential arching story lines that pick up where one leaves off in a previous scene. There are also larger story arcs that attempt to tie in the end of Act One with the beginning of Act Two. The text itself seems to capture the period well, but there is one general problem and that is that character development seems to be lacking. This is also due to the precious little musical connections for the primary characters. There is a semi-lyrical theme that plays in the opening of scene one and which recurs briefly elsewhere, but it only serves to help anchor the listener a bit.

One musical issue that is perhaps as much a problem of casting as anything else, is that all the male characters have a similar vocal quality, and that makes them indistinguishable from one another. On a dramatic level, this is one way of showing the similarities in the men that Sarah chooses to be in her life. But by the time all four are on stage in the final act for a quartet, it really just becomes an indistinguishable mesh of sound.

Scene three from Act One features the detective that Maurice (Sarah's former lover) has hired to see what she is doing and if she has another lover. In what is a kind of on-stage musical equivalent of the slow fade into a flashback, he tells the story while bits and pieces are sung by the other characters until we are firmly in the flashback. That was an interesting effect that worked well. The fourth scene in Act One is a wonderful mixture of what film fans would recognize as diegetic and non-diegetic music playing simultaneously and in alternation. We hear the orchestra playing a dance number which is coming from a record player on stage. Heggie also casts his other orchestral language into the mix as well and the two vie for attention until the player is turned off. Of all the scenes in the opera, this one is perhaps the finest. The dance theme is further played out by the maneuvering of the three characters who appear in this scene and move through the staging on and off stage. Sarah's mother has the best defined character performance of the piece and practically steals the scene. The music throughout wavers between a tango-esque and bolero rhythm that hints at the sinuous sexy innuendos she throws out at Maurice. This scene also reveals an important clue about Sarah's past. And what we plainly see is that Sarah is really searching for a substitute father figure to help rationalize his tragic death that happened in her childhood. It helps explain the God language we have heard, as well as her religious comments that pop up in the first act.

The religious themes of the opera are problematic for two reasons. One is that we really do not get enough character development for us to really care one way or the other about what they think. Secondly, an extended series of scenes in Act Two that are simply monologues about believing or not believing, or semi-dialogues with God feel archaic in their language. They pull the drama to a standstill in Act Two as we move from what should have been storyline and character development into more psychological ground. The latter can often work really well, but the ending of this affair wimps out with the message that love is eternal -- comment that I overheard flippantly from those leaving the performance. That is a good message but the response from most was so what. The connection between that and the love of God was not communicated.

Heggie's music is at least accessible and filled with piled up harmonies that provide ambiguity to where he may head tonally but somehow still manage to provide a harmonic center. Angular orchestral ideas play nicely against the rather restrictive vocal pitch ranges. But when the vocal lines soar they attempt to reveal the deep seated emotional punch and struggle that a character is dealing with in the story. The orchestral scene interludes are fabulous constructions that are orchestrated with great variety in the limited palette that Heggie is using here. The HGO Orchestra had a few rough moments of ensemble throughout the evening hinting at the difficulty of the work. The stage changes may have also caught the ensemble off guard a few times as well. During one scene change the orchestra has a wonderful subdued piece that would have been wonderful to hear but two stage pieces were rolling across for the next scene and all but obliterated the orchestra.

The sets and overall look of The End of The Affair are superb by all accounts. The effects of the changing stained glass church window were fascinating to watch. The central rotating piece was well-used and very functional in its positioning on-stage. The set changes though also experienced a bad night with a lot of extraneous sound distracting even the singers during scene four in the first act. By the second act a piece of staging managed to snag and rip the bottom of a curtain too -- so a it was a less than ideal night for the HGO, which is definitely an exception.

I hope to hear more of Heggie's orchestral music in the future as it made the opera far more interesting than it could have been otherwise. His interest in religious themes will likely continue and in what should be a long career he'll ultimately find the answer and expression that he continues to explore.

The Houston Grand Opera's production is directed by Leonard Foglia and ran in eight performances throughout March.

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