Barber’s Vanessa at the Washington Opera

Barber’s Vanessaat the Washington Opera 

This past October and November, the Washington Opera presented eight performances of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, featuring Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role, her only U.S. appearances in 2002. The production, staged by Stephen Lawless, was last seen in 1995.

Vanessa, premiered by the Metropolitan Opera, was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, and was enthusiastically received by both the press and the public. Yet subsequent productions have been relatively scarce. Perhaps the dark cloud that has hung over the composer’s other major opera, Antony and Cleopatra, since its disastrous 1966 premiere—also by the Metropolitan—has extended to Vanessaas well. This is a pity, because the work offers much to delight the traditional operaphile.

The music for Vanessa is representative of Barber’s mature style, a rich and sensuous blend of Puccinian romantic passion and Straussian luxuriance of orchestral texture, intensified by the greater tonal freedom and more dissonant harmony available to the 20th-century composer. The entire fabric of the work is interwoven with a variety of motifs that plant elusive melodic threads in one’s mind, leaving one yearning to hear it again. Today’s generation of Neo-Romantic opera composers has much to learn from one of the masters of the genre.

Vanessa’s only serious weakness is its libretto, written by Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer’s longtime companion and a major opera composer in his own right. The ultra-romantic story takes place “at Vanessa’s country house in a northern country, the year about 1905.” There she lives an isolated life with her niece Erika and her mother, the Old Baroness, who will not speak to her. As the opera opens, the once-beautiful Vanessa awaits the imminent arrival of her beloved Anatol, whom she has not seen in twenty years. However, the man who arrives presently is not her long-awaited love, but his son, also named Anatol. Both Vanessa and Erika are drawn to the charming but opportunistic stranger, who proceeds to seduce them both, impregnating Erica, while offering his hand in marriage to each of them in turn. Realizing the shallowness of his feelings, Erica rejects him and aborts the baby; Vanessa accepts his offer and departs with him for Paris, leaving Erica alone in the house with the Old Baroness, who now refuses to speak to her grand-daughter.

Menotti carefully tailored his libretto to the composer’s tastes, making “inside” references to Barber’s special interests, from fine food and wine to the plays of Chekhov, and cited as inspiration for his story the literary works of Isak Dinesen, which Barber enjoyed. But there is a fatal incongruity between the shallow, foolish main characters and the glorious music through which they express their foolishness, making it difficult to empathize with them and their plights. In fact, two of the opera’s most haunting and deeply moving arias are those sung by Anatol in his respective attempts to win over each of the two women.

The Washington Opera production was superb. In addition to the fine artistry of Dame Kiri, Anatol was played by 24-year-old understudy John Matz. Originally scheduled for the role was Jon Villars, but a family emergency required his replacement. Matz, a 2002 finalist in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition, revealed a light tenor of considerable fluency and fluidity. Dame Kiri herself was quoted as commenting, “I haven’t heard a voice like this with such intelligence behind it in a very long time.” As Erika, mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer displayed a gorgeous voice, and shaped her part with a meticulous tonal control that compared favorably with Te Kanawa’s, although her contribution was marred by stiff, clumsy acting. Of historical interest was the casting of Rosalind Elias in the largely mute role of the Old Baroness; it was she who played the role of Erika in the world premiere 44 years ago! The overall shaping of the opera was excellent, although some of the loveliest lyrical passages were rushed inexplicably by conductor Emmanuel Joel.