A Compelling Production of Barber’s Seldom-Heard Vanessa

IrelandIreland Barber, Vanessa: Wexford Festival Orchestra / Timothy Myers (conductor), O’Reilly Theatre, National Opera House, Wexford, 2.11.2016. (JMI)

Vanessa © Clive Barda

Vanessa – Claire Rutter
Erika – Carolyn Sproule
Anatol – Michael Brandenburg
The Old Baroness – Rosalind Plowright
The Old Doctor – James Westman
Nicholas – Pietro Di Bianco

Director – Rodula Gaitanou
Sets and Costumes – Cordelia Chisholm
Lighting – Christopher Akerlind

The second opera featured at the Wexford Festival is Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. Although it is not an especially popular title, it’s not as rare as the other two operas on the schedule. While not part of the standard repertoire, it is sometimes performed, often at the initiative of a soprano willing to sing the part of Vanessa.

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was an important American composer who particularly excelled in chamber works. His fame was greatest in the 1950s and ‘60s to the point that the Metropolitan commissioned this opera, which had its premiere in 1958. The final opera that Barber composed was also a Metropolitan commission: Anthony and Cleopatra, which opened the new Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center.

Vanessa, which has an excellent libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, should be more widely staged. The opera presents three generations of women in a family and their different visions of life.  Musically, it is easy to follow and has some beautiful passages, including the lovely farewell by Vanessa, a quintet that begins with a duet (Vanessa and Anatol) and is then joined by three other characters (Erika, the Baroness and the Doctor). Samuel Barber revised the opera in 1964, changing it to three acts and eliminating an aria by Erika (the only one she had), and this is the version staged in Wexford.

Vanessa, a mature woman, lives with her mother, the Old Baroness, and her niece, Erika. She had a relationship with a man named Anatol, who abandoned her, and has spent 20 years waiting for him to come back. The opera begins with the announcement of Anatol’s return and Vanessa’s consequent emotional reaction. But the man who appears is the son of Anatol, an unscrupulous and selfish young man who seduces Erika the night of his arrival. Vanessa and Erika both fall in love with young Anatol, but Erika, now pregnant and recognizing that he is dishonourable, decides to forego the relationship. Vanessa, however, chooses to marry him and to leave the house. The Old Baroness and Erika are left behind, and Erika begins, as did her aunt before her, a long wait.

This new production by Rodula Gaitanou is very appealing and suitable to the work. The set is the same for the entire opera, with a sitting room at the front, separated by a large doorway from the dining room where Vanessa’s engagement party takes place in Act II; a door at the rear separates the dining room from the outdoors. The action takes place in the 1930s or 1940s. The stage direction is remarkable, with a superb definition of the different characters.

The musical direction was entrusted to Timothy Myers whose reading I found very compelling, significantly better than that of Jean-Luc Tingaud the previous day in Herculanum. There was delicacy and emotion and close attention to the plot. The orchestra was also more impressive than the night before.

Vanessa was sung by soprano Claire Rutter, whose performance just partly convinced me. Her voice is nicely suited to the character and there were some bright moments, but at other times there was an excess of open sounds.

The best of the opera was mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule as Erika. Both vocally and theatrically she gave a flawless performance, putting the audience in her pocket as every good Erika should do. Her voice is attractive, and she sings with great expressiveness. Ms. Sproule definitely has a career ahead of her.

Anatol was played by Michael Brandenburg, a lyric tenor whose voice is not particularly attractive. James Westman was good as the Old Doctor, a character midway between comic and serious. Rosalind Plowright gave life to the Baroness, her strong voice denouncing the passage of time.

José M. Irurzun

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