Barber’s Vanessa: Successful But Not Perfect

Barber, Vanessa: Pacific Opera Victoria, soloists, Timothy Vernon (conductor), Glynis Leyshon (director), Jacques Lemay (choreographer), Pam Johnson (sets and costumes), Gerald King (lighting designer), Giuseppe Pietraroia (chorus director), Robert Holliston (chief coach and répétiteur), Royal Theatre, Victoria, British Columbia, 30.4.2011 (BJ)



Erika: Stephanie Marshall, mezzo-soprano

Nicholas, the Major-domo: Sam Marcaccini, baritone

Vanessa: Wendy Nielsen, soprano

Anatol: Adam Luther, tenor

The Old Baroness: Rebecca Hass, mezzo-soprano

The Old Doctor: Andrew Greenwood, baritone

The Footman: Sean Sager


Though both work and performance fell short of perfection, Glynis Leyshon’s production of Vanessa for Victoria’s excellent opera company amounted to a largely successful presentation of a largely enjoyable piece.

So far as Samuel Barber’s first opera itself is concerned, I feel that pleasures and flaws are about equally balanced. The story told by Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto exerts considerable romantic appeal, the orchestral writing is often luminously beautiful, and Barber certainly knew how to write for the voice. There are several beguiling set pieces, culminating in a quintet, “To leave, to break,” of genuinely magical grace and power.

But the opera’s vocal line often seems to have little to do with the orchestral writing, which is moreover broken up by a number of jagged and dissonant interjections that in turn appear unrelated to the stage action. There are some oddities of word-setting. The not exactly heroic hero, Anatol, recounting how he found Vanessa’s niece, Erika, lost in the snow, accords the highest rhetorical force to “There,” perhaps the least important word in the aria.

And the plot suffers from one weakness that I find extraordinary in a libretto by as highly experienced a theater man as Menotti. In the first scene, Vanessa is awaiting the arrival of Anatol, with whom she had a passionate affair twenty years before. Anatol arrives – but turns out to be the son of that earlier Anatol, now dead. The scene is reminiscent of the moment in Strauss’ Arabella when Count Waldner discovers that the Mandryka who has come to see him and woo his daughter is not his old regimental colleague: he is that deceased Mandryka’s nephew. But whereas in the Strauss there is a perfectly acceptable explanation for the surprise, in Vanessa I find it quite impossible to imagine how the young man could have set up the appointment without divulging his true identity.

Pam Johnson’s set, atmospherically lit by Gerald King, is handsome, though it lacks the full complement of mirrors and portrait called for in the stage directions, and her costumes are suitably elegant. Glynis Leyshon marshals her characters skillfully, and the cast portrays their concerns and inner conflicts with strong dramatic force. Again, however, there is a “but” to be addressed. Ms. Leyshon has a taste for adding extra characters to the operas she directs. In her Victoria Rake’s Progress, her addition of two silent acolytes to the cast did actually intensify the sense of threat presented by their diabolical boss, Nick Shadow. In Vanessa, however, her idea of providing Erika with a sort of dancing doppelganger, rather like the daemons that attend on characters in Philip Pullman’s fantasy novels, seemed to me a mistake. Dancer Treena Stubel presumably did everything choreographer Jacques Lemay demanded of her, and she did it well, but her gyrations frequently served to distract attention from some important musical passages. Their mysteriously stylized character was furthermore out of keeping with the romantic realism of the production as a whole. An argument could be made for wanting to diversify the atmosphere of the work, but I found the device more damaging than enhancing.

Aside from their comprehensive evocation of character and emotional conflict, the cast members brought mostly impressive voices to their work. As Vanessa – the only figure on stage that I thought rather ineffectively made up – Wendy Nielsen aroused all the right feelings of sympathy; she is a fine singer, though she needs to beware of a tendency to over-enunciate. Clarity of diction is not something I usually complain about, but some of her final consonants were too emphatic, so that, for example, “love” came out sounding like two syllables, i.e., “lo-vuh.” Stephanie Marshall offered a totally convincing and beautifully sung account of the tormented Erika, presenting in the closing scenes a compelling picture of a young woman possessed of volcanic emotions yet also of rarely breached self-control. Adam Luther, too, sang well, and his Anatol neatly captured the insouciant frivolity of a fellow who, in response to a comment that he and Vanessa “will make a happy couple,” can respond, “Yes, we shall have the most beautiful house in Paris.” Andrew Greenwood’s Old Doctor and Sam Marcaccini’s Major-domo were vocally and dramatically just right, and Rebecca Hass made of the obstinately uncommunicative Old Baroness a fearsome figure of oppressively introverted passion.

With the Victoria Symphony and the POV Chorus excelling themselves under Timothy Vernon’s customarily immaculate leadership, the musical infrastructure of Barber’s score was firmly delineated, and aside from wishing I hadn’t had to watch all that graceful but irrelevant dancing, I enjoyed this Vanessa more than a little – and more than I expected for a work by a composer I don’t always warm to.


Bernard Jacobson