|ACT III of Vanessa (photo by Eugenia Ames)|
The Mannes Opera has given Samuel Barber's 1958 opera Vanessa as fine a production as one would want. Conducted by Artistic Director Joseph Colaneri (sans baton), the Mannes Orchestra played with impressive spirit. Situating the winds in the pit of the Gerald W. Lynch Theater (at John Jay College of Criminal Justice), with the strings above at floor level, made for a fine blending of sound.
Jay Lesenger's direction was highly effective. Roger Hanna's sets were unfussy but served the action well. Trunks of birch trees and snow falling outside the windows gave a great indication of locale (unspecified "Northern country" was turned into "northern Hudson River Valley, N.Y."--although we couldn't keep from thinking of Sweden and Ingmar Bergman). The furnishings suggested old money. Nancy L. Leary's appropriate costuming was clearly early 20th c. at the beginning of the opera but changed to flapper costumes for obvious reasons which we hope to make clear.
For anyone unfamiliar with Gian Carlo Menotti's libretto (based loosely on the atmosphere of Isak Dinesen's stories), the tale concerns three generations of women of privilege virtually entombed in their secluded country home, seeing no outsiders save their old country doctor and their pastor. They are cosseted by servants.
Vanessa has been waiting for twenty years for her lover Anatol to return. She has covered the portraits and mirrors in the home, hoping to stall the passing of time. She has a fond relationship with her niece Erika but her mother does not speak to her. When Anatol finally shows up, it is actually Anatol's son who has come to meet the woman who so enchanted his late father and so enraged his mother.
Vanessa rejects him (the "false Dmitri") but Erika remains to dine with him and be seduced by him. Anatol is a fortune hunter and woos both women. Vanessa blossoms under his attention and Erika wilts under her wish to be loved more deeply than Anatol is capable of.
The Grandmother urges her to marry but Erika refuses to compromise her ideals to preserve her honor. The night of the ball at which Vanessa and Anatol announce their engagement, Erika goes to drown herself in the lake, having learned she is pregnant. She falls into a ditch, gets rescued, and recovers. She tells her Grandmother she is "no longer with child". Now the old lady withdraws her affection and conversation from Erika!
The happily wed couple leave for Paris, ostensibly on Vanessa's money. Vanessa has secretly left the house to Erika who must stay and look after Grandmother. Erika covers the mirrors once more and goes into seclusion. Things will be different for her because she will live without hope whilst Vanessa lived with hope.
The central question is one of accepting a flawed reality or living imprisoned with false hopes and ideals. Anatol, while an unlikeable character, represents a more modern view of romantic reality. In his own words, "I belong to another age". The plot is provocative and leaves us pondering at the end why the old lady rejects her daughter, then her niece. We will spare readers our theory and leave them to ponder on their own.
So...clearly, this is a fascinating and absorbing tale which held our interest as theater. But it claims to be an opera so we must address the music. Erika's ACT I aria "Must the winter come so soon" is lovely and mezzo-soprano Rachel Weishoff gave it a lovely lyrical performance. The final quintet "To leave, to break" involved some stunning harmonies. We enjoyed the waltzes, especially when the drunken doctor dances at the party and sings about women. Beyond those events, this "opera" comprises sung dialogue, with the choppiness of English speech dictating the not very lyrical vocal line. Our 19th c. ears were not pleased, although we did enjoy some of the instrumental interludes, especially when we heard the soothing sounds of the harp, played by Yeon Hwa Chung.
Major roles were sung by different casts on the two nights. We were perfectly happy with the valid performances of the principles. Soprano Isabelle Freeman made a fine Vanessa and conveyed beautifully the emotional expansion of a woman in love who allows herself to feel loved. As the unfortunate Erika, Ms. Weishoff was moving and convincing in her portrayal of ambivalence toward a man she both loved and hated. Carolyn Aguirre was a chilling presence as the silent Grandmother.
Tenor John Kun was adept at showing both the engaging side of Anatol, and also the smirking slimy side. Baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco as The Old Doctor gave a performance that delighted us, a well rounded character that had only good intentions. The scene at the engagement party in which he breaks one of the two champagne glasses he is carrying brought a note of lightness to the grim story. It was funny that he couldn't remember whom the second glass was for. This made him very human.
Mitchell Kasprzyk portrayed Nicholas, the Major-Domo, and Mathew Cossack played the role of A Footman. The scene at the party of fondling the fur coat was another note of lightness.
English diction, coached by Kathryn LaBouff, was so exemplary that Lily Arbisser's fine titles were rarely necessary.
So, we enjoyed the evening very much as theater, not so much as "opera". But this is just our particular taste. Those who are more appreciative of non-lyrical 20th c. music seemed to have loved the work.
(c) meche kroop