Los Angeles Opera’s 2004 “Vanessa”

Review by David Gregson

Some things come late in life. I have known bits and pieces of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa seemingly forever: the concluding quintet, "To leave, to break, to find, to keep" and to whatnot; Erika’s aria, "Must the winter come so soon?"; Vanessa’s "You may not wish to stay"; and assorted other bits and pieces. I even own an audiocassette of the entire 1958 original cast recording, although I’ve rarely listened to it — and I am now, thanks to the gift shop in the LA Opera’s lobby, the proud owner of the CD version of that very same performance, and I must say it sounds fabulous, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, soprano Eleanor Steber as the eponymous heroine, mezzo Rosalind Elias as Erika, tenor Nicolai Gedda as Anatol, basso Giorgio Tozzi as the Old Doctor, and mezzo Regina Resnik as the Old Baroness. What a cast! All of them singing in impeccably lucid English. If only live performances in English were ever so gloriously comprehensible.

But, as I was saying, some things come late in life — and, as far as Barber’s Vanessa is concerned, those two things for me are the following: my first experience of the opera by living performers on an actual stage, and the crushing realization that the opera is not the towering American masterpiece I had always believed it to be. Oh dear! Especially since I have been madly promoting (in print!) the upcoming San Diego Opera production of Vanessa scheduled for April. Not that I would for one moment discourage anyone from going to that — or to the current LA production for that matter. The work has many astonishing pleasures to accompany its sad disappointments. And the LA Vanessa marks the LA Opera debut, believe it or not, of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, a widely beloved soprano whom one can safely call "legendary" if only because she sang at a famous royal wedding televised to a jillion people on planet earth.

What’s wrong with Vanessa? The libretto, for starters. Its author is Gian Carlo Menotti, a mutli-talented artist of considerable stature and a man of irresistible wit and charm. (I interviewed him once and keep the photograph of that memorable occasion on display in my home.) But in his work on Vanessa, Menotti crafted an overly schematic plot in which his leading characters switch places in a dramatic design of carefully calculated symmetry. Caught up in this infernal plot-machine of despair, the aging title heroine and her niece seem incapable of any introspection. Psycho-dynamically they are frozen, doomed to a sort of spiritual immobility, virtually frozen in the unnamed far-northern land they inhabit. A third character, the Old Baroness, is the worst of the lot. She, for the larger part of the opera, cannot even bring herself to speak to anyone. Her isolation is the most extreme — and, frankly, the most psychologically incomprehensible.

Charles Dickens’ Miss Haversham is, of course, the most infamous jilted bride in literary history. She is an unforgettable figure in Great Expectations, never removing her bridal gown and living in a room with her increasingly moldy wedding cake. Nobody who loves novels can ever discuss Miss Haversham without smiling; her case is comically extreme, stretching our credulity to the breaking point. Menotti’s Vanessa seems modeled on the absurd Miss Haversham, although a character in one of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales is the alleged source. Stood up by her fiancé 20 years before the action of the opera begins, Vanessa has shut herself and her servants away in her ice palace, never to receive visitors again. Her mother, the baroness, is there too, but not speaking to her; and her niece, Erika, manages the gloomy household when it would make much more sense for her to get out of there. In fact, we lose sympathy for Vanessa the moment we realize the extent of her selfishness; if she were to receive visitors, perhaps Erika could find the right man and have the life Vanessa never could. Yet, despite Vanessa’s proclamations of love for her niece, when a visitor does arrive, Vanessa never imagines anybody’s happiness but her own. This results in a demented blindness amounting to stupidity. The visitor, Anatol, who is in fact the son of Vanessa’s former lover, immediately beds Erika and gets her pregnant, but Vanessa never ever figures this out. Erika, at least, can see that Anatol is a louse and is probably there to marry Vanessa to get her cash (although both Barber and Menotti conspire to create an emotional ambiguity to Anatol’s role). But the schematics of the story dictate that Erika show no common sense about getting out of her situation. After Erika has aborted her child and Vanessa and Anatol leave together for Paris, Erika resigns herself to Vanessa’s fate, draping all the mirrors and waiting for — what? The return of Anatol? Possibly. Vanessa has willed the property to Erika. But Erika has insisted she does not love this callous man. So what are we to make of the end except that it’s cheaply theatrical. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for three women unwilling to do a damn thing to change their lives, two condemning themselves to voluntary solitude, and the third, the baroness, not speaking to anybody.

Of course, it’s the nightmare of human isolation that Menotti and Barber are trying to express, so one might argue the opera perfectly succeeds in what it sets out to do. Like the libretto, Barber’s music, in fact, is schematic to a fantastic degree, taking little leitmotivs and playing with them in infinitely interesting ways. Musically the work is a terrific challenge for the orchestra, with lots and lots of stuff for the winds. (What a challenge for the very capable Karen Keltner when she conducts this one for the SDO in April!) Barber manages to be musically beguiling, melodic and intellectually calculating, all at the same time. Those who feel he’s being "old fashioned" in a time when serialism and atonality ruled the world just may not hear how complicated the score really is, or even hear just how dissonant a lot of the music actually is at times.

It says something highly significant about the LA Opera performance that the biggest applause on opening night went to Rosalind Elias as the silent Old Baroness, a part that obviously involves little singing. By her very presence, Elias, who is brilliant as Erika on the original cast recording, enriched the opera’s intended impact of human fossilization. One would have expected, however, a rapturous reception for Dame Kiri as Vanessa, but this elegant looking diva failed to inspire an ovation. She was just there, and it was difficult to fault her on anything. At her age she is still singing remarkably well and she did as much as she could with the part. It was easy, however, for the younger artist, mezzo Lucy Schaufer, to make a strong impression as Erika, while tenor John Matz and baritone David Evitts proved very well suited to the parts of the callous Anatol and the ridiculous Doctor.

And speaking of Callas. When Barber offered her the part of Vanessa, she allegedly turned it down because she didn’t want to play second fiddle to the mezzo. The fact that she did not like singing in English is probably the real reason, but if she had read the story carefully, I am certain she would have thought, "I can’t play this woman. She’s an idiot with no heart."

The set (pictured below) was attractive, although it shimmered and shook to the music, and the stairs leading upward actually lead down, which is highly confusing in terms of the dramatic action. People would go up and downstairs to exit or enter the house at times, and at others they would go up to living quarters. And at one point they entered through the side and observed things going on out in the audience. The director, in other words, could not tell left from right or up from down.

Simone Young conducted superbly and the orchestra played with striking transparency considering the elaborate nature of the score.


VANESSA PRODUCTION DATES: Saturday November 27, 2004 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday December 1, 2004 7:30; p.m; Saturday December 4, 2004 2:00 p.m.; Thursday December 9, 2004 7:30 p.m. ; Sunday December 12, 2004 2:00 p.m.; Wednesday December 15, 2004 7:30 p.m.; Saturday December 18, 2004 7:30 p.m.

Kiri Te Kanawa — VANESSA
Lucy Schaufer — ERIKA
Rosalind Elias — BARONESS
John Matz — ANATOL
David Evitts — DOCTOR
Peter Nathan Foltz — A FOOTMAN

CONDUCTOR–Simone Young

2 hours 40 minutes

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