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Review: ‘Vanessa’ shines despite libretto short of singable language

SANTA FE, N.M. — First of all, I’d like to commend the Santa Fe Opera for producing four operas beyond the usual list of war horses done to death. Case in point is the final offering this season, Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” a work infrequently heard despite Barber’s standing as the pre-eminent American composer of the 20th century.

Whoever called Barber a neo-conservative or neo-romantic needed to have his ears cleaned out. He could only be seen as such in comparison with the absurd musical experiments of the late 20th century, now thankfully passed into obscurity.

The biggest problem with “Vanessa” is the libretto. The story is intriguing and could even have come from the pen of Edgar Allen Poe with its psychological twists. It may have been inspired by Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen’s) “Seven Gothic Tales.”

As for the language of the libretto itself, one may possibly argue for the quality of the writing, but too much of it is simply not musical language, which even in Barber’s lyrical hands results in awkward quasi-recitative.

Zach Borichevsky as Anatol and Erin Wall as Vanessa in the Santa Fe Opera’s “Vanessa.” (Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera/Ken Howard)

Zach Borichevsky as Anatol and Erin Wall as Vanessa in the Santa Fe Opera’s “Vanessa.” (Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera/Ken Howard)

There are some gorgeous sections, especially the aria “Must the Winter Come So Soon?” and the instrumental intermezzo in the third act, but that makes us eager to hear more in that vein rather than semi-talking style that dominates the work.

“Vanessa” represents a point when opera librettos lacked the singable language of past eras. Even Barber’s formidable capacity for setting words can’t overcome lines that would be more effective spoken rather than sung. One can put notes to any words, but that does not guarantee good music or melody.

In the title role, Canadian soprano Erin Wall has been frequently heard here, most recently in Strauss’ “Arabella.” She turns in an impressive portrayal as the aristocratic recluse, almost Miss Havisham-like, Vanessa, for whom mirrors are covered and time has stopped. The voice has, however, developed a somewhat brittle timbre that I cannot recall in her past performances.

Wagnerian bass-baritone James Morris (who cannot remember him as Wotan, king of the gods?) adds an immeasurable presence, not only in his voice but in his role as the old Doctor, both dramatic and comic. Along with the Major-Domo (Andrew Bogard), he provides a welcome scene of comic relief beginning the third act. The Doctor is clearly out of his element among the decadent inhabitants of the house.

Erika, the niece of Vanessa, becomes throughout the course of the opera, even more neurotic than her aunt. French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez traverses her journey from relative innocence to ultimately assuming the posture of her aunt. Tenor Zach Borichevsky gives a sweet-toned yet rascally Anatol, not the one Vanessa is expecting, but his son, which adds to the foreboding complications.

Veteran conductor Leonard Slatkin conducts the work with a particular confidence (having recorded it). His interpretation is crisply paced, though perhaps a bit too brisk at moments for the haunting quality of the story, and occasionally drowning out the singers. The Act 3 instrumental intermezzo is the musical highlight of the evening.

Despite its flaws, “Vanessa” remains the best American opera of the 20th century.

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