Love and God in the Blitz: 'The End of the Affair'

Jake Heggie's opera "The End of the Affair" offers a thought-provoking debate over the existence and nature of God. The new work is also a fine example of how lyrical modern opera can be.

Opening Seattle Opera's 2005-06 season on Saturday, Oct. 15, the opera has undergone two revisions since it premièred on March 4, 2004, at the Houston Grand Opera. Heggie and director Leonard Foglia joined librettist Heather McDonald in overhauling the storyline for this latest version.

"The End of the Affair" is the story of the married Sarah Miles, who makes a deal with God to save her lover, Maurice Bendrix, after she believes he has been killed during the London Blitz in World War II. Based on the Graham Greene novel of the same name, which also engendered two films, the opera follows the painful consequences of Sarah's promise to give up her relationship with Maurice.

The small quibbles I have with this opera are the same faults I find in most operas, even those penned by the most respected composers. Information is repeated that we already know and don't really need to hear again. Having every character declaim his or her revelation at the end of the opera makes the conclusion feel contrived.

Apart from those all-too-common frailties, Heggie's work and Seattle Opera's production have plenty to recommend them. A capable cast, under the direction of Foglia, does justice to both Heggie's gorgeous music and the opera's characters. Mary Mills, singing the role of Sarah Miles in the Saturday cast, was ablaze with passion on opening night. The eroticism was electrifying between Sarah and Maurice when they made love just before the bombing.

As Maurice Bendrix, Philip Cutlip was initially unfocused in character and difficult to hear over the orchestra. Those issues quickly resolved, and Cutlip easily matched Mills. At the opera's denouement, Cutlip was riveting as he inveighed against the cruelty of God, in whom Maurice finally comes to believe.

In the thankless role of Henry Miles, Sarah's boring husband, Brett Polegato is anything but dull. His emotional nuance as he struggles with his shortcomings as a spouse make him a sympathetic character. Equally touching is Raymond Very as Richard Smythe, a rationalist who falls for Sarah, although she merely hopes their conversations will prove there is no God so she can return to Maurice.

Robert Orth is spot on as Mr. Parkis, a private detective hired to follow Sarah who finds himself liking her. His duet with Mills, wishing his son untroubled dreams, was pure loveliness.

With her brazenly red hair and her slightly vulgar impudence, Joyce Castle is the picture of pushy flamboyance as Sarah's mother, Mrs. Bertram. Even her voice has an irritatingly brassy edge.

Conductor Yves Abel has vigorously schooled his orchestra on every detail of Heggie's score, resulting in an incandescent rendering.

Michael McGarty's sets serve as a constant reminder of the pivotal moment during the bombing when Sarah makes her burdensome bargain with God. The church, God's tangible home on earth, is omnipresent in walls of heavy stone replete with windows, some filled with stained glass, shaped in circles and arched peaks like those in cathedrals. Jagged-edged, the partially ruined walls also bear witness to the inescapable annihilation visited by the bombs. The bombing itself is such a ferocious explosion of sound, movement and shattered glass that most audience members involuntarily jumped.

The blue in Donald Holder's lighting design effectively enhances the chill of the unbreachable loneliness between the characters, although overemphasizing its use at times distances the viewer from the passions onstage.

Hewing closely to the realistic realm of '40s clothing, costume designer Jess Goldstein restrains Sarah's clothing to light touches of diva glitter, while Mrs. Bertram's getup is appropriately gawdy.

Freelance writer Maggie Larrick lives in the Seattle area and is the former editor of the News.[[In-content Ad]]