Letters From Santa Fe: Vanessa
Among the many pleasures of attending the Santa Fe Opera every summer, is the presence of a contemporary opera among the five productions. I’ve seen many intriguing pieces over the years there; some are even world premieres, among them Emmeline (Tobias Picker), Venus and Adonis (Henze), Madame Mao (Bright Sheng), A Dream Play (Lidholm), and Tea: A Mirror of Soul (Tan Dun). And you can count on a healthy representation of American composers. Curiously one name has been absent until now, Samuel Barber. The omission was remedied this summer with the SFO premiere of his acclaimed Vanessa.
It’s fair to consider Vanessa Barber’s signature opera and his first success at the Met. His Antony and Cleopatra opened the new Met in 1966 but to a disastrous reception. Many years later, I did see a revival in Chicago with Catherine Malfitano. I felt it didn’t touch the heart like Vanessa, which was rapturously received. That said, its popularity waned, despite a revision by Barber to tighten and reduce it from four acts to three. The piece has seen something of a revival in recent years. Kiri Te Kanawa had success with Vanessa, as had Carol Vaness. Five years ago it was staged by Pacific Opera Victoria with Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen.
The libretto is by Barber’s long-time partner Gian Carlo Menotti, who drew his inspiration from Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. Some have commented on Vanessa’s kinship to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. In truth, Vanessa is undeniably Gothic, and the SFO production by James Robinson and Tobias Hoheisel wouldn’t be out-of-place as a 1940’s film noir. Vanessa naysayers love to point out how dated and contrived the story feels today. Perhaps in our post-feminist 2016, not too many women would wait 20 years for the return of a lover! But then, when it comes to affairs of the heart, there are no rules.
The SFO production is beautiful yet deliberately unsettling, dominated by an opulent if monotonous silver-grey — the upholstery, the enormous drape (which hides a huge, dramatically cracked window), down to the costumes for the Old Baroness. Set in some unknown northern country, Vanessa lives with her mother, the bitter and silent Old Baroness and her beautiful young niece, Erika. It’s a joyless household, where Vanessa, dressed in black, mourns her cruel fate, having been left at the altar by her lover, Anatol, twenty years earlier.
The opera opens with the unexpected return of Anatol, who turns out to be the son of the original lover. The young Anatol is a penniless opportunist, who proceeds to seduce and impregnate Erika, who thus becomes her aunt’s romantic rival. And the story gets messier with each passing minute. Erika decides that she cannot stand in the way of her aunt’s happiness and rejects Anatol. Vanessa marries the young imposter, and they leave for Paris. The opera ends with Erika assuming the mantle of the mourner, wearing black, sitting in Vanessa’s chair across from her bitter and silent grandmother, the Old Baroness, just like the opening scene.
Premiered in 1958, Vanessa was considered old-fashioned, essentially a romantic and tonal piece amidst a sea of angular serialism, the fashion at the time. It has formal arias, duets, and ensembles, even a canonic quintet at the end, the famous “To Leave, to Break, to Find, to Keep.” “Must the Winter Come So Soon?” can be found on the repertoire list of many budding mezzos. Divas the likes of Leontyne Price have recorded “Do Not Utter a Word.” The truth is, there’s much beautiful music in Vanessa, and history has shown that it has outlasted many of the atonal pieces of its time. Santa Fe Opera fielded an admirable cast, led by Canadian soprano Erin Wall, who fully embodied the role, singing with dramatic power and vocal nuance, her high ethereal pianissimos much in evidence. The tall and handsome American tenor Zach Borichevsky, an excellent Matteo in Arabella a few seasons back, looked terrific as the cad Anatol and his tenor with its easy top coped brilliantly with the high tessitura.
In the pivotal role of the niece Erika, mezzo Virginie Verrez showed great promise. The voice is large and beautiful — one can understand why she won the Met Auditions. Her “Must the Winter Come So Soon” was lovely. Elsewhere, her mezzo was occasionally under strain at the top in climactic moments, especially when she pushed. Mezzo Helene Schneiderman didn’t have a lot to sing as the Old Baroness, but she made the most of her brief moments in the spotlight. Her characterization of this enigmatic character was suitably chilling. It was wonderful to see veteran bass James Morris, a great Wotan of the past, as the Doctor, sounding years younger. He also brought out the much-needed subtle humour in a very gloomy opera. Returning to SFO after an absence of six seasons, American conductor Leonard Slatkin gave a well-paced and expert reading of the score. All in all, a most worthwhile addition to the SFO repertory.