Santa Fe Opera’s elegant, disturbing ‘Vanessa’

Santa Fe Opera’s elegant, disturbing ‘Vanessa’

With a libretto by Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber’s infrequently performed but highly regarded opera, "Vanessa," gets a well-deserved, near-perfect production in Santa Fe.

Virginie Verrez as Erika in Samuel Barber's "Vanessa." (Photo credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

SANTA FE, N.M., August 12, 2016 – Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” debuted in a glitzy world premiere by the New York Metropolitan Opera in January 1958 under the baton of legendary conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos. With its English language libretto penned by Gian-Carlo Menotti, Barber’s opera went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, also becaming the first American opera staged at the prestigious Salzburg Festival. Barber revised it in 1964, trimming it from four to three acts—the version usually performed these days. If you can find a performance.

Composer Samuel Barber. (Public domain image via Wikipedia entry on Samuel Barber)
Composer Samuel Barber. (Public domain image via Wikipedia entry on Samuel Barber)

It’s been on and off again since the early 1960s for this deeply introspective neo-Romantic American opera. This summer’s production by the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) is the New Mexican company’s first. In recent decades, we’ve been fortunate enough to see “Vanessa” performed twice in our home base of Washington, D.C. by the Washington National Opera, whose most recent performance (2002) was headlined by star soprano Kiri Te Kanawa.

“Vanessa” is a marvelous work of musical art, though for some it may take a little getting used to. Contemporary audiences still tend to shy away from most “modern” operas, fearing the kind of 12-tone cacophony that long dominated 20th century Western classical, particularly in this country.

In that regard, “Vanessa’s” brief prelude actually opens quite ominously, with alarming, thick chords punctuated by crunching dissonances. Yet as the opera and its strange cerebral tale begin to unfold, the neo-Romantic modernism of Samuel Barber takes over with a score well-suited to match and underscore “Vanessa’s” dark, psychological undertow.

The influence of Richard Strauss is subtly present in this music. But “Vanessa’s” vocal lines more strongly recall the expressive sung dramas of Benjamin Britten, while its penultimate scene unexpectedly evolves into a glorious final quintet of exceptional beauty.

Composer and librettist Gian-Carlo Menotti. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Menotti)
Composer and librettist Gian-Carlo Menotti. (Image via Wikipedia entry on Menotti)

So the popular, “real-life” story of this opera goes, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Barber’s life-partner and an accomplished Italian-American opera composer in his own right, based his libretto for “Vanessa” on a novella or short story penned by Scandinavian writer Isak Dinesen (aka, Karen Blixen).

Critics have pointed out, however, that no such story exists in Dinesen’s collected works. It seems more likely that Menotti developed his Twilight Zone-ish book and libretto based on the themes and atmospherics embodied in Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales.”

Whatever the case, “Vanessa,” set in the wintry countryside of an unnamed Scandinavian country, is an intensely introspective, psychological journey through vain hope and almost courtly love disguised as a lavish, late-19th century costume drama.

Approaching middle age (or already there), the timelessly beautiful Vanessa (soprano Erin Wall) has hidden herself away in her large and lonely country home. Somewhat like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, she has attempted to obliterate the passage of time by covering all portraits and mirrors in the house, determined to await the return of Anatol, the lover who abruptly abandoned her twenty years previously. Her disgusted, moralistic old mother, the Baroness (mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman), will no longer speak to her for reasons we will later infer.

Read also: Santa Fe Opera’s ominously fatalistic ‘Don Giovanni’

As the opera opens, the table is set for two. The long-lost Anatol has actually written, promising at last to return to Vanessa. When he does arrive, Vanessa is stunned to see that this Anatol (tenor Zach Borichevsky) is not her lover, but apparently an imposter.

That explanation turns out to be just a bit too simple, however. True, Vanessa’s now-unwanted guest is really  named Anatol. But he is, in fact, the now-deceased son of the original Anatol.

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Erin Wall (Vanessa). (Photo credit: Ken Howard for SFO)
Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Erin Wall (Vanessa). (Photo credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

Young Anatol explains to Vanessa’s niece and companion, Erika (mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez), that his late father had often spoken of her aunt, causing him to seek her out. The two young people impulsively become lovers, which, unfortunately, gets Erika in a family way. Just as impulsively, but likely for monetary reasons, Anatol quickly and coldly abandons Erika for her aunt. He wins the hand of the older woman, who promptly unveils the mirrors and windows and reopens her house to the public in celebration.

The upshot? Vanessa and Anatol, newly married, depart for Paris, leaving behind Erika and the aged Baroness, both of whom launch into an instant replay of the opera’s opening scene (and music) as Erika orders the mirrors and portraits to be covered once again as she commences her own long wait for Godot, haunted by the silent reproach of her grandmother. As the stage fades to black, we understand that the cycle will now repeat itself.

Family curse or the triumph of hope over reality? Composer and librettist leave that up to us in this strangely static psychodrama that illustrates the still-heavy influence of Freudian psychology upon Western art and philosophy in the 1950s. As with many PBS mini-series devoted to dramatizing English literary classics, what “Vanessa” lacks in action and excitement, it gains by exploring its characters’ emotional and psycho-sexual inscapes.

Under the imaginative stage direction of James Robinson, this SFO production, created by the endlessly-inventive Allen Moyer, is visually riveting, with its malleable set highlighting the opera’s existential and Freudian undertones. While the characters’ costuming (by James Schuette) adds splashes of color, the bleakness of this production’s setting is intensified by monochromatic white of Vanessa’s large drawing room while its claustrophobia is reflected by the small space this room initially occupies on SFO’s much-larger stage.

But, as if to accentuate Vanessa’s suddenly re-expanding romantic and psychological universe, the room gradually splits apart and expands as Vanessa’s obsessive love for false Anatol prods her psyche to blossom once again. Even so, however, the dominant image is of a large, black massively-cracked mirror that reflects only an emptiness, augmented a bit later by a snow-white spiral staircase to nowhere that, perhaps, symbolizes Erika’s own journey of no return, the tragic, endless do-loop of the human heart.

It remains for SFO’s superb cast of singers to add life and meaning to this bleak mental landscape, and they deliver superbly.

Virginie Verrez (Erika) is comforted by the Major Domo (Andrew Bogard). (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)
Virginie Verrez (Erika) is comforted by the Major Domo (Andrew Bogard). (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)

In many ways, the central character of this opera is Erika, the innocent, younger woman—Vanessa’s doppelgänger perhaps—who both inherits and then grapples with the same past and future realities that forever altered her Aunt Vanessa’s life. Virginie Verrez, with her deeply-informed and passionate mezzo voice, weaves these erratic and erotic visions together to create a deeply complex, affecting and memorable character.

As the tragic and apparently delusionary title character, soprano Erin Wall creates a decidedly more brittle, out-of-touch Vanessa. She is easily startled and damaged by the initial appearance of an entirely new Anatol, ultimately dealing with it by ignoring past reality and creating a hallucinatory new one. Vocally, Ms. Wall articulates her damaged character best through her often tentative, almost out-of-focus lines, giving us the haunting impression that her Vanessa who is no longer living in reality.

Whether intentionally or not, Menotti’s libretto offers young Anatol as an elegant but rather amoral narcissist, generally careless of what he says or whom he may damage. At the same time, if he genuinely wants or needs someone or something, he can easily focus on his target with laser-like sharpness.

Tenor Zach Borichevsky and his equally laser-like voice create an Anatol who is simultaneously calculating in the manner of an experienced engineer yet also possesses the creative capacity to float into and merge with the dream worlds of Erika and Vanessa, capturing both of them and putting them into his irresistible orbit. There are far nastier villains in the world of opera—Puccini’s Scarpia immediately comes to mind. But few are colder than Anatol. And it’s Mr. Borichevsky’s icy tenor that seems made to order for this production’s romantic lead—and nemesis.

Barber’s trio of leads is central to this opera’s effectiveness. But its small cast of secondary characters adds welcome bits of color and normal humanity to “Vanessa’s” stark and lonely mental landscape. Helene Schneiderman’s interpretation of the Baroness is one case in point. The Baroness has precious few lines to sing in the opera. Yet her stern visage—perhaps the embodiment of an all-powerful yet debilitating and judgmental superego—rules over “Vanessa’s” scenario surveying and ultimately disapproving of everything she sees.

On the opposite side of the character wheel is Vanessa’s—and the family’s—Doctor, sung here by a longtime Metropolitan veteran standout, bass-baritone James Morris. Long-known for his distinguished vocal portrayal of Wotan, Mr. Morris’ instrument is still robust though it’s perhaps lost a step. But on the other hand, that is a big plus here in his portrayal of the Doctor who’s perhaps the only handle on reality in an opera that’s largely devoted to exploring futile, self-defeating dreamscapes.

In the other pair of “Vanessa’s” we’ve seen in Washington, the Doctor seemed to be a negligible, perhaps superfluous character. But Mr. Morris’ sincere yet purposeful, unevenly-etched interpretation of the Doctor is precisely the character that’s needed to help keep the audience focused. Mr. Morris portrays the Doctor as a realistic but almost light-hearted realist, adding a most necessary humorous touch to this opera’s otherwise somber proceedings.

He can see tragedy coming a mile away, but is too experienced to imagine he can do anything about it. He is, after all a physician whose experience and skills involve healing the human body and he takes some pride in his abilities. As for the human mind, heart and spirit, he’s the first to admit he’s out of his depth.

Mr. Morris is at his best in this sense during his appearance in “Vanessa’s” ballroom scene where his decidedly tipsy doctor provides a humorous yet rational commentary on the tragedy that’s about to unfold. His Doctor is a necessary ingredient for this production’s success.

The SFO orchestra, this time under the baton of one-time National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) music director Leonard Slatkin, seemed considerably more involved with Barber’s intricate score than it was with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

After experiencing some flaps involving the NSO and the Metropolitan Opera over the past decade, Mr. Slatkin, currently music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, seems to have returned what he can do best: conduct a relatively contemporary American score with inventiveness, insight and precision. In fact, he seemed to have the perfect skill set to successfully guide SFO’s superb production of “Vanessa” helping to make this 2016 offering one of the highlights of the company’s current season.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

Tickets and information: Season (5 opera) packages may still be available. Single ticket prices for each opera this season range from $32-$225. All operas this month begin at 8 p.m., and the 2016 season concludes on August 26, 2016. For more complete information including directions, individual performance dates and tickets, visit the Santa Fe Opera site here, or call the Box Office Monday through Saturday (in season) between 9 and five Mountain Daylight Time at 505-986-5900 (local) or 800-280-4654.

Additional notes: If you haven’t attended the opera here before, watch the skies, bring an umbrella when appropriate and, for the ladies in particular, include an extra wrap. Santa Fe and environs may be in the desert, but it can cool off considerably in the evening. As it’s “monsoon season” in the American southwest, the weather can also get surprisingly stormy in late afternoons and early evenings.

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