Opera: De Banfield & Williams / Love Letter to Lord Byron



Today I was listening to the one-act opera Lord Byron’s Love Letter by Raffaello de Banfield and libretto by Tennessee Williams. Reader, have you heard of this creation? I didn’t think so.

I only have a copy myself because one fine afternoon ages ago I found myself scrounging among the used bins in Amoeba Hollywood looking for something strange with a brand new Visa card in my wallet. So I will tell you about this little operatic oddity. 

The recording is from the Orchestra Sinfonica dell’Emilia-Romagna conducted by Gianfranco Masini with a cast of Elena Zilio, Sylvie Valayre, Gabriella Brancaccio, and Sergio Tedesco. It’s an amateurishly engineered live recording that is easily the shittiest sounding opera CD in my possession. But it’s a Tennessee Williams libretto, I mean, c’mon, you gotta make room for it in the collection right? 

This little creation between Williams and De Banfield, which received its premiere in New Orleans in 1955, isn’t anywhere close to being in the repertory but it does get produced here and there as a curio owing the fame of its librettist. The plot concerns an old woman and her daughter in New Orleans who purport to own a copy of a letter written by Lord Byron to the elderly woman’s grandmother. They sell peeks at the letter to tourists for money in that quaint era predating Google Images. There is a flashback sequence of the woman with the Lord in Greece and finishes with a revelation at the end which I will not spoil for you. 

Williams’ words to this little opera are unpretentious and as spare as any of his fine plays, but they are inscrutable when sung. You wouldn’t think this dialogue would be so unmusical when reading through it, but somehow the lines do not translate well to the operatic stage. Through the mouths of singers they are almost indecipherable. Note to prospective producers: English supertitles, please. 

As you would expect, Williams affixes a lurid combination of repressions, neuroses, jealousies and family skeletons to all of his female characters which, coming from him, is predictable theater, but as always provides great fun after the show when meeting up with friends at your favorite all night diner or speakeasy comparing notes as to who was the biggest beeyatch of the bunch. 

My only problem with this story is this: If we’re going to be treated to another TW southern gothic rehash, why couldn’t we get something with a little more plot and a little more spice? Like maybe a 3-act bacchanal starring a corrupt, domineering, closeted gay Louisiana governor (baritone) and his son (tenor) who’s romancing a middle-aged faded stage actress (contralto) while two-timing on her with her daughter (mezzo-soprano) who’s always running around town barefoot clutching a bottle of bourbon with her tits falling out of a slip. Now that would be some mighty fine deep fried Tennessee Williams southern grand opera, believe you me!

De Banfield’s music for Love Letter is lightweight, tonal and accessible. It has passages that to my ears wouldn’t be out of place in a Cocteau film – a bit of Georges Auric, but more sedate, without the spark of Auric. Reviewers from the NY Times and Washington Post do not agree with me, The Times deeming De Banfield to be nothing more than a tinhorn Puccini. But when I check up on this fellow… well whaddaya know. He was palsy-walsy with Cocteau and Poulenc and others of Les Six and from this I believe my ears do not deceive me about his influences. 

This Raffaello De Banfield character is intriguing. Born in the UK to expat aristocrats (he claimed the title of “baron”) he seems to have been more an artistic jet-setter than a dedicated composer. The smoking gun here is that despite his slight compositional resume (mostly art songs written for Maria Callas and other crazyladies) he was good friends with Herbert von Karajan, who never to my knowledge conducted any of De Banfield’s compositions but did have a fetish for acquiring titled aristocratic connections like my kid collects Pokemon cards

And here’s something else I’m divining: At the time of this opera’s creation, I think the composer and librettist were collaborating on something other than music. I think they were indulging in a bit of amorous congress. I advance this theory for two reasons: First, in the 1950s Williams was at the top of his game and could have collaborated with elite talents like Bernstein or Rorem or Menotti; why throw this work to some aristocratic dabbler? 

And secondly – just check those pics, taken of De Banfield around the time of this opera’s premiere. He totally looks like Williams’ type – the young Adonis with a pocketful of old money going about Rome in rough trade drag. I could peruse one of the many TW bios to check this but that takes time and it’s so irresistible to guess and speculate that I’m just going to go with it!