|VANESSA by Samuel Barber at the Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)|
Samuel Barber's opera premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 1958 after a long and difficult gestation. Ultimately, Barber's partner Gian-Carlo Menotti completed the libretto, inspired by the atmosphere of Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. Last night the Santa Fe Opera presented this opera with an all-star cast that did justice to Barber's score. We rarely experience such perfect casting with nary a weak link.
As the eponymous Vanessa, Canadian soprano Erin Wall, whom we have greatly enjoyed as Strauss heroines right here at the Santa Fe Opera, performed the role with total commitment, employing her lustrous soprano to convey a complex character, a woman of single-minded hopefulness but blind to reality. Her voice soared with passion.
No less wonderful in the role of her niece Erika was French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, who not only created a believable character but mastered the difficult task of making the English language comprehensible. This role is her Santa Fe Opera debut and we were thrilled to see her onstage here after enjoying her many performances in New York City. Her delivery of the most famous aria of the opera "Must the Winter Come So Soon" was perfection.
As the mysterious Anatol, Zach Borichevsky utilized his terrific tenor and dramatic skills to create another fascinating character--a glib fellow who has no use for depth of character--an opportunistic rascal courting aunt and niece simultaneously.
As the Doctor, bass-baritone James Morris commanded the stage as he usually does with his marvelous instrument and presence. With all those complex characters, the story needed one who was straight-forward. A heavy story like this one also needs some moments of lightness, and a score light on memorable melody needed those precious moments when the Doctor attempts to teach Anatol to dance to a beautiful folk tune "Under the Willow Tree". His scene during the New Year's Ball in which he inebriatedly contrasts his experience with women as patients and women as dancing partners was memorable. His elegiac aria about time and memory was riveting. It tickles us to learn that Mr. Morris was an apprentice here in 1969!
Mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman had little singing to do but her onstage concentration as the silent Baroness was compelling. As a very funny Major-Domo apprentice tenor Andrew Bogard demonstrated a winning manner as he coveted the furs of the wealthy guests. Apprentice bass-baritone Andrew Simpson made a fine footman.
For those who do not know the story, we see it as a character study--one of three generations of women insulated from the outside world and cosseted by servants. They live isolated and locked into Vanessa's illusory hope that the man she loved twenty years earlier would return at any time. In what amounts to a folie a deux, her niece Erika plays along, ordering special dishes for dinner and laying a place for him. Clearly, she worships her aunt and supports her.
The elderly Baroness has stopped speaking to her daughter and actually doesn't even speak with the Doctor, only with her niece. Erika confides in her grandmother but has a guilty secret that she cannot share with Vanessa. This guilty secret is that she had intimate relations with Anatol the night he arrived at their country home after Vanessa had fled from him. You see, this is not the Anatol that abandoned Vanessa 20 years earlier! It is that man's son who has heard a great deal about Vanessa from his recently deceased father. He has come to take his father's place. It is likely that he is a gold digger.
Erika's character is just as uncompromising as her grandmother's. Anatol is interested in marrying her, perhaps out of guilt but also for financial reasons. But Erika, who has fallen wildly in love with him, knows that he doesn't love her sufficiently and rejects him. She does this in spite of her grandmother's urging her to marry him and preserve her honor.
Meanwhile the scoundrel is also courting Vanessa who, lost in her own joy, fails to notice what is happening with her niece. When, after Erika's failed suicide attempt (and miscarriage), she confronts Anatol asking him to reveal all, he gives her the reassurance she has hoped for. And so does Erika. They all collude to support Vanessa's illusion and Vanessa departs for Paris with Anatol, whom she has wed. Erika is left behind to care for the aging Baroness and to inherit the lavish manse.
Her isolation is one of disappointment and despair, whereas Vanessa's was one of hope. But both women covered the mirrors as a denial of the passage of time.
The story has been set at the turn of the 20th c. in a Scandinavian country manse. Director James Robinson has updated the tale to about 1940 to no major disadvantage (or major benefit for that matter). He told the story well in a manner that held our interest throughout. When we think of opera we think first of the Italians of the 19th c. and then of German and French composers. Contemporary operas in English generally strike us as "plays with music". So let it be noted that this worked extremely well as theater!
But what about Barber's music? He certainly knew how to write melodic vocal lines but eschewed them here with the exception of Erika's aria and the Doctor's. The final quintet however was magnificent. Barber used the orchestra to reflect the various moods of the piece and we have no complaint on that count. Leonard Slatkin's conducting captured the many moods.
Allen Moyer's scenic design was perfect. The white and grey set reflected the coldness of the clime and the chill atmosphere of the manse. As part of the design, a huge cracked mirror was revealed when the drapes were opened. A mirror reflects not quite perfectly but a cracked mirror reflects the distorted understanding of the characters.
James Schuette's costumes were appropriate to the period. Although we would have preferred seeing the fashions of the original time period we were satisfied that the costumes established congruency with the intended updating.
Including this work in their season was a courageous move by The Santa Fe Opera and a wise one. It was an evening in which every element worked together to provide artistry and entertainment both. We have rarely enjoyed a 20th c. opera as much.
(c) meche kroop