Waiting. That’s the theme of Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” a melodramatic soap-opera-of-an-opera, with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti that touches on our deepest vulnerabilities, anxieties and insecurities.
“Vanessa” had its world premiere in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera with a star-studded cast that included Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, Nicolai Gedda, Regina Resnik and Giorgio Tozzi. Critics have called it the greatest American opera.
We’ve been waiting, impatiently, for this voluptuous, darkly human American classic to arrive, and, this season, Sarasota Opera has given us a “Vanessa” that radiates bleakness and pathos in a way only grand opera can embrace tragedy and suffering.
Vanessa (Kara Shay Thomson) has been waiting for Anatol to return to her. She’s been waiting for 20 years! (That’s longer than Butterfly pined for Pinkerton.) Her own mother, The Old Baroness, hasn’t spoken to her in all those years because she won’t speak with people who live a lie. Erika (Audrey Babcock), Vanessa’s 20-year-old niece, the granddaughter of the Baroness, is living in this house of darkness, where paintings and mirrors are covered. Their only visitors are The Old Doctor (Thomas Potter), Nicholas, the Major-Domo, (Stephen Fish), and their Footman (Andrew Kroes).
Waiting for love, undefined, unbridled, unprotected, precarious and perilous is what “Vanessa” is about. Thomson’s Vanessa is justly neurotic and unfulfilled. Her gloriously rich soprano conveys the beauty she’s concealed in her heart, but her ramrod straight spine tells a story of a spinster spurned. Waiting.
Sadler’s Old Baroness is the unyielding, unforgiving, stiff-necked Victorian creature Menotti envisioned, but her rich, warm mezzo belies a woman inhabited by frustration.
Babcock, as Erika, begins as a young woman who’s lived between two frigidly frightened spinsters who won’t yield an inch of their disappointment in life. She’s waiting for her spring. “Must the winter come so soon,” Barber’s soaring aria for Erika, is glorious in its iciness.
Waiting, the women stare out the windows of their drawing room onto a woodland of coldly dancing snow deftly designed by Michael Schweikardt and frostily lit by Ken Yunker. The icy blues and grays of their sets are as cold and austere as the people who populate them.
Then, as sleigh bells rise from the orchestra pit, there he is. Anatol (Scott Piper) has returned. But it’s not Vanessa’s Anatol. He’s dead, and his son has come in his stead. Piper’s Anatol is a young, vigorous and opportunistic cad with the voice of an angel.
Of course Erika is bewitched, besotted and, after being swept into bed with him, bewildered as she watches her aunt, Vanessa, tumble into the past only to fall in love with this new Anatol, as well.
This is where the Menotti theatrical touch begins, taking us into Sondheim-like tiers of passions and plots, populated by double meanings and multi-layered depths. Is Erika too entrenched in her solitude to love? Does she refuse Anatol’s proposal because she sees through him or because she knows her Aunt Vanessa loves him? Is her decision to abort the baby they’ve created in their one night of passion selfish or altruistic?
Does Vanessa, as she slips into love with Anatol, realize what a self-seeking, egoistic scoundrel he is, or is Anatol really something of an anti-hero because he, finally, gets Vanessa to leave that house of gloom and enter a world that’s no longer filled with waiting?
And why is The Old Baroness so stuck in her north country Victorianism that she can’t see her way to love those around her? Stiff-necked and rigid, once she learns her beloved Erika has purposely aborted her baby, she returns to her silence, never to speak to her niece, just as she cannot bring herself to utter a sound to her own daughter, Vanessa.
Relieving this stony silence, Barber’s music gives us the warmth that inspires hope. His soaring, meltingly beautiful melodies sit atop newer harmonies, giving life to a musical language that raises opera’s emotional ceiling. The hymn he incorporates in the second act, with its rhythmic meter changes, takes Menotti’s text to ultimate heights, exploring the questions swirling around the lives of the characters. The doctor’s aria, composed at the last minute, is filled with lyricism. And his glorious quintet in the finale is as grand as opera can get.
None of this would be possible without the commanding vocal and dramatic performances of Thomson, Babcock, Sadler, Piper and Potter. Director Michael Unger has given us characters we can take home and ponder. And conductor David Neely has held it all together with an incredibly musical, vibrant orchestral sound that’s always supportive, never overpowering and sensitively powerful.
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