About this Recording
NA331212 -

Pierre Ambroise Françoise Choderlos de Laclos
Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses)


Dangerous Liaisons – Cast

Marquise de Merteuil - Sarah Woodward
Vicomte de Valmont - Michael Sheen
Madame de Tourvel - Polly Hayes
Madame de Volanges - Estelle Kohler
Cécile de Volanges - Claire Skinner
Chevalier Danceny


In 1779 an officer of the French army was sent to Aix to assist in the building of a military fort. This officer was the thirty-eight-year old Pierre Ambroise Françoise Choderlos de Laclos, and he had a different kind of battle on his mind to that of his fellow soldiers. He was poor, of the petite noblesse rather than the aristocracy, and finding his climb up the career ladder unbearably slow and hindered by the class snobbery. Of his superiors, he decided to launch an attack on the ancient régime in the form of the novel, written in 1781, that we know today as Dangerous Liaisons. This novel was indeed a product of its time and the pervading Rousseauist mood, which was to culminate in the French Revolution a few years later. Flush with his new literary success, Laclos entered the household of the
Duc d’Orléans in 1788 as sécrétaire des commandements and played a relatively important role in the Revolution. However, like his military career before, it was singularly undramatic. After the execution of the Duc d’Orléans, Laclos’s own trip to the guillotine seemed inevitable, yet a far more mundane and ignoble end was awaiting him. Some believe he won his reprieve by writing Robespierre’s speeches for him while in prison. He left prison a broken man—weakened and mentally disturbed, yet his faith in General Bonaparte led him to command an artillery in Italy for him.

Finally, in 1803 at the age of 62 and far from his beloved wife and children, he collapsed in the Italian heat and died of dysentery. His last letter, to Bonaparte, clearly expresses his misery, anxiety and bitterness. Outside of his one tremendous literary achievement Laclos’ life was a picture of frustrated ambition and disillusionment. But for his Dangerous Liaisons we would not know his name today.

Dangerous Liaisons is one of the great novels of eighteenth century French literature, if not of all time. Written in epistolary (letter) form it is clearly the product of a tactical military mind, constructed so intricately, so ingeniously, that the reader is captured from the very first page. Laclos proves himself a great artist in his seamless switch from voice to voice—the scheming, monstrous Merteuil; the naîve but charming virgin Cécile; the religious, virtuous Madame de Tourvel; the seductive libertine Valmont; the wise old Madame de Rosemonde…This skill is shown perhaps most cleverly when he writes a letter by Valmont who is pretending to be Cécile—Laclos acting as Valmont acting as Cécile! Thus style, tone and language are carefully tailored to each letter writer, resulting in characters so believable that at times we tremble before them. They are also typical of their age, in particular of the ruling classes, which were the target of Laclos’ attack.

Indeed Dangerous Liaisons has a somewhat manipulative effect upon the reader, almost as manipulative in fact as that of Valmont and Merteuil on their helpless victims. Until approximately halfway through the novel we are so compelled and fascinated by the villains of the piece that we cannot help but secretly take their side (as we do Milton’s Satan). However, it eventually dawns upon us that a truly heinous and appalling crime is taking place before our eyes and our sympathies immediately switch to the victims.

When Valmont tells Danceny towards the end of the novel “Ah! Believe me, we are only happy through love”, he sums up the basic message of Dangerous Liaisons. It is true of every character in the novel that their only moments of true happiness occur when they are in love. Even Merteuil cites her affair with Valmont as the only time of happiness in her life. And yet love is debased and manipulated to such an extent that the result is misery or death for all the players, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. As Madame de Volanges so rightly points out: ” In all this I see the wicked punished, but I find no consolation in it for the unhappy victims.”

Laclos himself takes on the role of a fictional ‘editor’ and writes a preface to the novel in which he discusses the value of the work and speculates upon its success. This claim to authenticity was a common practice in eighteenth century ‘memoir’ novels such as these. The author of such novels inevitably claims to have been told the story by the narrator himself, or to have ‘found’ the material, as in the case of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ where Laclos claims he was “requested to put in order this correspondence by those into whose hands it had fallen” (Madame de Rosemonde and Danceny, for example). This is an extract from his ‘Editor’s Preface’:

“The utility of the work will perhaps be …contested but seems to me easier to establish. To me at least, it appears a service rendered to good morals to unmask the methods employed by those whose morals are bad, in corrupting others who are good, and I think that these letters effectively contribute to that end. There will also be found the proof and example of two important truths which might be thought unknown, seeing how little they are regarded; one is that every woman who consents to receive into her society an immoral man ends by becoming his victim; the other is that every mother who allows someone else to possess her daughter’s confidence is at least imprudent. Young people of either sex may also learn here that the friendship, which seems to be granted them with such facility by persons of bad morals, is never anything but a dangerous snare, as fatal to their happiness as to their virtue. Yet abuse, which is always so near to what is good, seems to me particularly to be dreaded here; and, far from advising this book to youth, I think it very important to deprive the young of all books of this kind. The period when it may cease to be dangerous and become useful appears to me to have been grasped—for persons of her own sex—by a good mother who not only possesses intelligence but a good intelligence. “I think,” she said to me, after she had read the manuscript of this correspondence, “I should be rendering a real service to my daughter by giving her this book on her wedding-day.” If all mothers of families are of a similar opinion I shall always congratulate myself upon the publication of this work.”

Notes by Anna Britten


The music on this cassette taken from the NAXOS catalog

MOZART Overtures (Idomeneo, Apollo and Hyacinthus etc)

Capella Istropolitana/Barry Wordsworth

MOZART Gran Partita

Amadeus Wind Ensemble

MOZART Sinfonia Concertante

Takako Nishizaki/Ladislav Kyselak/Capella Istropolitana/Gunzenhauser

HAYDN Farewell Symphony

Capella Istropolitana/Barry Wordsworth

Music programming by Sarah Butcher

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