In the middle of the 20th century there was no American composer better situated to write the Great American Opera than Samuel Barber: he was the most popular composer of classical music in the country; he was trained as a singer and had successfully brought out songs, other vocal works (e.g. Knoxville: Summer 1915), and choral works of great distinction; and he wrote in a modern but neo-Romantic style that gratified the ear. Vanessa, which was first staged in 1958 and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize (his second Pulitzer award of three), was well received (in the US, anyway, although it was dismissed by the European avant-garde). Yet, despite all this, and despite a libretto by his life partner and successful opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti that eschewed American subjects and went for a more salable universal psychological study (derived from several stories by Isak Dinesen), whenever anyone produces it today it is routinely billed, as every other American opera but Porgy and Bess is, as a “revival.” The latest to reach Boston ears (the last we can remember was done by the Boston Academy of Music under Richard Conrad and Gil Rose over ten years ago —it was recorded and is available on Naxos) was the concert performance produced by the BU School of Music on September 28 at the Tsai Performance Center.
For the BU performance Steven Ledbetter provided an excellent plot synopsis, but rather than go into the plot in detail here we prefer to let you see a decent online one (note that in 1964 Barber combined the old Acts I and II), so we can concentrate on the music and the performances.
Barber’s setting reveals him as the American Tchaikovsky — technically assured (tight motivic integration, brilliant orchestration, clever polyphony), emotionally supercharged, melodically luxuriant (“Under the Willow Tree,” the mock-Russian folk-tune, was long a stand-alone hit, and various divas have recorded other popular arias from the opera.). The opera’s structure, with arias and other set pieces, notably the canonic quintet near the end, was water in the face of academic Wagnerian triumphalism. We detected what might have been some snippy musical satire, too, on Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, in the first act scene where Vanessa critiques Erika’s reading from Sophocles.
There were interesting things happening in American musical theater in the 1950s, and Vanessa fits in: you might even say that if West Side Story was an opera in the guise of a musical, then Vanessa is a sort of musical in the guise of an opera — there’s even a “title number” (“Love has a bitter core, Vanessa,” a perfect tripartite duo aria with cabelleta) and reprises in all the right places. The music’s chief weakness is its relentlessness — every act begins with a prelude starting with a sententious bang, and only the bittersweet interlude between the scenes of Act III (on the “Vanessa” theme) offers relief of sorts. While Menotti’s words are well-chosen if sometimes a bit arch, and his dramatic pacing is good, one is left feeling that he and Barber are often sneering at their own characters — there’s not a truly sympathetic one in the bunch; cynical, fatuous, feckless, or delusional, they are. Erika comes closest, we suppose, but her reasons for abjuring Anatol are all the wrong ones, and her final self-imposed internal exile borders on farce. The music sneers as well, as in the New Year’s Eve ball, with “Willow Tree” fighting for dignity against tipsy polytonal yawps.
The orchestra, under William Lumpkin, and the chorus, directed by Ann Howard Jones, were excellent. This music is very difficult, and until signs of fatigue set in towards the end, everybody was quite in the center of it. We have a special shout-out to concertmistress Lisa Park, whose tone in several solos was ambrosial.
The cast, especially considering that all but the lead were BU Opera Institute students, was quite strong. Soprano Lauren Flanigan (a BU alumna), who has made a specialty of contemporary opera at the Met, La Scala, New York City Opera and many otherwheres, performed Vanessa with NYCO in 2007. Even in the somewhat corseted conditions of a concert performance, she fully inhabited her character, even while sitting down; and while standing, she projected powerfully and with excellent diction Vanessa’s turmoil and occasional coquettishness. Sometimes her vibrato got a little wider than optimum, but overall hers was the kind of performance we wish we could have seen staged. Mezzo Rachel Hauge as Erika also has lovely tone, good diction and carrying power. Her dramatic approach was weak at first, but warmed up; Erika is a bit of a stick anyway, but Hauge managed to convey the smoldering passion beneath. Tenor Clay Hilley’s Anatol was magnificently smarmy, a most ingratiating cad with a bright tone and fine control. The Doctor (no, not the guy in the blue box), well sung by bass Adrian Smith, is a hard role to get just right: it’s too easy to ham up the drunken reveler in Act II, difficult to convey with appropriate vacuity but without buffoonery his self-indulgent sentimentality. Smith more or less split the difference dramatically, which is OK, but deeper analysis would have made it better. Deeper analysis and better theatrical chops would also have helped contralto Amy Oraftik with the Old Baroness, who has relatively little to sing, but who has to appear to herself like the moral center of gravity while conniving with low cunning to get Erika married off. This part was given to some of the greatest actresses on the opera stage — Rosalind Elias (who, ironically, first played Erika) and Regina Resnik. Ms. Oraftik’s singing was accurate though not particularly powerful, rich or plummy (that stuff comes with age, we suppose), but she needs to use her face more, which is where this part must live, instead of relying on such stock devices as turning her back to convey her final rejection of Erika. Baritone Lu Zang filled in the cast roster with dignity and precision in the almost invisible role of Nicholas, the household majordomo.