Santa Fe, N.M. — Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, currently running at the Santa Fe Opera, might be a leading candidate for The Great American Opera if it wasn’t so European in style and even in setting. But the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera was an American product, with an asterisk.
Barber was pure American. He was born into a prosperous family in West Chester, Penn. in 1910. Librettist Gian Carlo Menotti was born in 1911 in Cadegliano-Viconago, Italy but his mother brought him to America while still a youth. In 1928, his mother enrolled him in Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and promptly returned to Italy. Menotti stayed and, although he never gave up Italian citizenship, he referred to himself as an American. Thus, the asterisk.
The two composers were both in the same classes at Curtis and formed a life-long bond as musical and personal “partners” (gay marriage was inconceivable at the time).
Menotti wrote operas, but only to his own libretti—but he furnished the book for Vanessa. The source of the story is often credited to Isak Dinesen (nom de plume of Karen Blixen), but Menotti only borrowed the gothic atmosphere of her work. That atmosphere, no matter who inspired it, is perfectly captured in the production.
Vanessa is waiting for the return of Anatol, her lover of 20 years ago. She is certain he will return. She has barely moved ever since so as to preserve her youthful appearance: no smiles, no laughs, no frowns … nothing. The mirrors are all covered. Her grandmother hasn’t spoken a word to her ever since and her withdrawn niece, Erika, quietly watches after both of them. It is just the three of them, each in their own private hell.
The opera is set in an unnamed northern country, so Allen Moyer’s sets are appropriately generic. Reflecting the gloom of the house, the sets look like they are also dormant; covered in an unrelenting gloomy gray. Even the rococo filigree over the doors is painted gray, as if to hide itself, ashamed by its elaborate gaiety in such a somber environment.
The back of the stage is covered by an equally drab curtain. It hides a floor-to-ceiling shattered mirror that moves in and out of the stage to reflect the stages of the plot. It is too blatantly obvious to be effective and it is a distraction with its canted reflections. James Schuette’s costumes reflect the family’s wealth in an understated and elegant manner.
As the opera opens, the coveted moment has arrived: Anatol is returning. When he enters, in one of the musical highlights of the score, Vanessa tells him “do not utter a word” or even look at her. She wants to be seen through the eyes of a lover, because anyone else would see traces of the long years that have pased. He says, “I think I could love you” and everything explodes.
It is not Anatol, but it is another Anatol. It is his son and the father is dead. The frantic Vanessa leaves in tears. Erika is left to care for Anatol and a romance begins to bloom between them, but it only lasts that one night. Vanessa decides that this Anatol is just fine; they plan to marry and move to Paris.
There is only one problem. Erika is pregnant. Vanessa doesn’t know, of course, but Anatol tells Erika that he “will do the right thing” and marry her instead of Vanessa. But Erika wants a lover more than a captured husband and she turns down his offer.
At a Christmas party, Erika goes out in the freezing snow in her flimsy party dress. When the household realizes she is missing, they set out on a search. She is found, nearly frozen to death in a ravine, and brought into the house. She survives but the baby, her claim-check on Anatol, did not. When Vanessa and Anatol depart for Paris, Erik orders the mirrors draped and sits down. It is her turn to wait.
Santa Fe’s production has a marvelous cast that perfectly fits the characters: vocally and physically. You could cast a movie with them. And why not? The plot is a lot like a Hitchcock film or a work of film noir.
As befits an opera with little in the way of action, and the drama unfolds in quiet interactions between a few people, in which the action is subtle, the cast is made of all elegant singers (or singing elegantly). Gorgeous floating soft notes abound from one and all and the big moments are kept in scale. The phrases are sung to reflect the words so completely, and with such precise diction, that the supertitles are not really needed. You would be hard pressed to decide who was the best singer on the stage.
The Vanessa of Erin Wall sets the bar high right from the opening aria. Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, as Erika, is a good match. The two voices are different enough to never be confused. The third woman on the stage is mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman, as the Old Baroness. Her voice is slightly darker. But but all three are similar enough in timbre to blend beautifully in the ensembles.
Director James Robinson lets the exchange of character between Vanessa and Erika take place subtly, but soon you realize that one has become the other. Anatol’s arrival is the catalyst. Vanessa gets progressively younger, even girlish, but Erika ages and becomes nearly silent.
Lyric tenor Zach Borichevsky is a fresh faced and handsome Anatol and his voice is equally youthful. He plays the role as a well-dressed graduate student from some snooty private college. He is unaware of the possible ramifications of his one night stand with Erika: such assignations are common occurrences in his set. He is also oblivious to the fact that she is deeply in love with him.
However, Borichevsky’s shallow Anatol truly cares for Erika and is slightly conflicted. After all, Vanessa is old enough to be his mother and Erika is just about to bloom into a beautiful young woman. But, his offer to marry Erika, instead of running off with Vanessa, rings hollow, even to the audience. “Oh well” he seems to say with a shrug. Erika will have none of it.
Anatol wastes no time in spending Vanessa’s considerable fortune, even before the actual marriage ceremony. He brags that he is already busy with the renovation efforts. And they will have the most beautiful house in Paris, without a thought about how gauche and nouveau-riche he sounds.
As the old family doctor, bass-baritone James Morris is a revelation. His appearance is also slightly unexpected. After all, he is the greatest living Wotan, in Wagner’s Ring cycle, of our time.
His wondrously deep and resonate voice takes on a completely different hue in this situation to bring it in line with the more lyrically voiced cast. But his acting gifts are here in full force. He commands the stage, even when he is not singing. Of special mention is his perfectly modulated drunk scene. This is very difficult to pull off because it is so easy to overdo. Morris hits it right on the mark. His admission that he is not a very good doctor is more to himself than others and carries only a small amount of regret.
The singers in the two secondary characters, portrayed by Andrew Bogard and Andrew Simpson, come from the pool of outstanding apprentices. Both have attractive bass-baritone voices and secure stage presences.
Barber’s score was written in 1958, right when modernism and musical experimentation became the lingua franca between composers and eventually ruled supreme. Composers like Barber, who still found plenty to say in C major, were scored and ignored. Vanessa, Pulitzer or not, was soon considered old-fashioned and a relic of the past, as was neo-tonality itself into the late 1990’s.
But the atonal requirement passed and composers today can write any way they want and many use tonality in much the same way as Barber did in Vanessa. Thus, the score sounds amazingly fresh to modern ears.
Conductor Leonard Slatkin did a fine job shaping this score, which alternates between thickly orchestrated and more vacant sections. He was on top of the text all the way. He also modulated the sound so that the orchestra never covered, or even challenged, the lyric voices in the cast. The orchestra responded to him with some excellent playing.
Vanessa is rarely performed so this is a golden opportunity to see it, and in such a fine production. Let s hope that similar scores that were so unfairly ignored and ridiculed for their use of anything even resembling tonality, will finally get the attention that they are due while the wildly dissonant and incomprehensible ones take their turn, like Erika, hopefully waiting on some dusty shelf for the spotlight to return.
» More reviews from the 2016 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Mozart's Don Giovanni
- Puccini's La Fanciulla del West
- Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
- R. Strauss' Capriccio