Santa Fe Opera’s General Director Charles MacKay commissioned a new production of one of his favorite operas, Barber’s “Vanessa”, which originally premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958. West Virginia Director James Robinson created the production and his frequent collaborator Pennsylvania designer Allan Moyer created the sets and Wisconsin designer James Schuette the costumes.
[Below: Allan Moyer’s basic set for Barber’s “Vanessa”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Erin Wall’s Vanessa and Helene Schneiderman’s Old Baroness
In the part of Vanessa, Canadian soprano Erin Wall was convincing as a wealthy, titled woman whose reaction to a breakup with a former lover named Anatol has been to withdraw from the world for 20 years (to the point of covering all mirrors and portraits of herself as a youth), while awaiting Anatol’s return to her. When an Anatol does arrive, she is at first dismayed that he is her lover’s son of the same name, then becomes charmed by the younger Anatol, marries him, wills her home to her niece Erika, and leaves with Anatol for Paris.
The role of Vanessa requires a soaring power voice, which Wall provides with seeming ease, showing mastery of the role’s high tessitura. Wall was convincing in this complex character, whose withdrawal from the world had led to an estrangement with her own mother, the Dowager Baroness.
[Below: Vanessa (Erin Wall, right) dresses in mourning clothes while awaiting the return of a former love, while her mother, the old Baroness (Helene Schneiderman, left), signals her disapproval by refusing to ever speak to her; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wall’s triumphs at the Santa Fe Opera included ventures in Offenbach [see Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010 and Richard Strauss [see Erin Wall, Mark Delavan Are Superb in Elegant New Production of “Arabella” – Santa Fe Opera, August 1, 2012].
Her estranged mother, the Old Baroness, was synpathetically acted and sung by mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman in a bravura performance.
Virginie Verrez’ Erika
Another powerful female part is that of Erika, Vanessa’s niece, sung and acted with passion by French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez. Wined and dined by Anatol on the night of his arrival at Vanessa’s home, Erika becomes pregnant, but will not agree to marry Anatol, despite his entreaties (although he is unaware of her pregnancy), because she distrusts Anatol’s motives, commitment and constancy.
[Below: Erika (Virginie Verrez) studies a collection of snow globes; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Verrez’ portrait of Erika was that of a strong-willed woman, who refuses to interact with the world on its terms, particularly if she is merely to become an agent of Anatol’s fortune-seeking. The opera’s conclusion, in which Erika replaces Vanessa’s obsessions with covered mirrors and locked gates with her own, can be read in different ways, not excluding the possibility that Erika is aware that she will end up inheriting the house and her aunt’s title and can then pursue her life on her own terms.
Zach Borichevsky’s Anatol
The part of Anatol was assumed by Pennsylvania tenor Zach Borichevsky. Tall and handsome, Borichevsky possesses a light lyric voice which pales somewhat against the power voices of Wall’s Vanessa and Verrez’ Erika. Yet, casting a (handsome) tenor with a lighter voice, has a dramatically effective result.
[Below: Anatol (Zach Borichevsky), who is not the expected guest, arrives; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
No matter how much Anatol schemes towards inheriting Vanessa’s house, it has been willed to Erika, who will inherit a title from her aunt Vanessa as well. If Vanessa dies, Anatol, unless he can convince Erika to change her mind, is out in the cold. So he remains Vanessa’s gigolo and nothing more!
[Below: Vanessa (Erin Wall, right) allows herself to be charmed by Anatol (Zach Borichevsky, left); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
James Morris’ Old Family Doctor and Other Artists
One of the great character roles in mid-20th century American opera is the role of the family doctor who cared for Vanessa’s medical needs when she was a child and continues to be a counselor and friend to a family who seems not to heed counsel nor seek friendship. Veteran bass-baritone James Morris, a reigning opera star of the late 20th and early 21st century who continues to delight audiences, performed brilliantly in the part.
[Below: James Morris (here as the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Hans Sachs for Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”) was the Old Doctor; edited image, based on a publicity photograph for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Ohio bass-baritone Andrew Bogard was impressive in the role of the Major Domo, including playing the straight man to Morris’ slightly inebriated Doctor. Texas bass-baritone Andrew Simpson was the footman.
California conductor Leonard Slatkin led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in a brilliant performance.
Thoughts on “Vanessa”
In recent years the major operas of Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti – who were involved romantically as well as professionally – have been reevaluated. The examination anew of their works comes after a long period when their compositions had been dismissed by some critics as “tonal” (i.e., containing patterns of musical notes that opera goers would recognize as melodies), when complex twelve-tone or atonal patterns were preferred by many critics.
The set pieces – arias and ensembles – for which “Vanessa” is best known – were each superbly performed by the assembled cast. These include the Love Has a Bitter Core duet between Borichevsky’s Anatol and Wall’s Vanessa , the arias Must the Winter Come so Soon, sung by Verrez’ Erika, and Under the Willow Tree sung by Morris’ Doctor, and the final quintet To Leave, to Break, in which Schneiderman’s Dowager Baroness joins the other four principals.
The story, created by Barber and Menotti, was inspired by the mood of the the Seven Gothic Tales of Danish author Karen Blixen (whose pen name was Isak Dinesen), most famous for the novel Out of Africa. The Barber-Menotti product, Vanessa, however, was their original idea. The story is an intriguing psychological study, which makes for an interesting evening in the opera house.
[Below: Samuel Barber (left) with Gian Carlo Menotti, his life partner and librettist for “Vanessa”; edited image, based on an historic photograph.]
There are few opportunities to see this absorbing, dramatic work, especially in an attractive production with a strong cast such as is offered at the Santa Fe Opera. I recommend this enthusiastically to all opera goers attracted to or curious about mid-20th century American opera.