|Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016|
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 3 2016
Samuel Barber's fascinating yet rarely performed opera in lush new production
|Zach Borichevsky and Erin Wall in Vanessa |
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
We caught James Robinson's production on Wednesday 3 August 2016, an evening which was cool and cloudy with torrential rain, perhaps an apt environment for Gian Carlo Menotti's rather gothic libretto. Leonard Slatkin conducted, with Erin Wall as Vanessa, Virginie Verrez as Erika, Helene Schneiderman as the Baroness, Zach Borichevsky as Anatol, James Morris as the Doctor, Andrew Bogard as the Major-Domo and Andrew Simpson as the Footman. Sets were by Allen Moyer, costumes by James Schuette, lighting by Christopher Akerlind and choreography by Sean Curran.
Gian Carlo Menotti's libretto has its rather melodramatic side (someone once commented that he had written it using the Oxford Book of Cliches), and James Robinson's production built on this by staging the work in the context of a Hollywood Noir film, complete with a set inspired by Hollywood Regency designs. Apart from the costumes for the ball scene in Act Two, the entire production was in shades of grey with Allen Moyer's striking box set, lit by Christopher Akerlind's lighting, having real sense of coolness about it. As light comes back into Vanessa's life, the set imaginatively fractured and expanded, but retreated back with Erika's retreat into solitude at the end. James Schuette's costumes were similarly stylish, all 1940's glamour.
The result was to give the production a lushness which matched Samuel Barber's music. At its best the production really made sense of the staginess of Menotti's text and the rather melodramatic quality to the story. But you felt that a more austere, critical production style might have brought out some more of the psychological depth of the piece, rather than simply echoing the gorgeous lush quality to the music. And there are interesting undercurrents, is Erika in fact Vanessa's daughter, how does the plot echo elements on Barber and Menotti's personal life, Vanessa's great affair with Anatol's father clearly took place whilst the man was married with at least one child.
|The Ball Scene|
The title role was written for a dramatic soprano capable of great lyric beauty. Erin Wall showed superb control and poise as Vanessa, and her opening aria 'Do not utter a word' was superbly controlled with a perfectly fine sense of line and intensity. Throughout the opera, Wall showed this combination of lush beauty of tone and sense of line, matched by the very stylish figure she cut on stage. I cannot think of ever hearing the role more beautifully sung, but I felt that a slightly more dramatic voice might have been able to dig a bit deeper into the psychological complexities of the piece and make Vanessa a rather more meatily intense character.
Apart from the famous moments, Vanessa and Erika's arias and the quintet, the opera is very much about lyrical dialogue, the sort of melodic noodling which Richard Strauss did so beautifully. To bring this off the singers need to bring out not only the text, but the psychological undercurrents. At Santa Fe the singer who really brought this out was the great Wagnerian bass, James Morris as the Doctor. Morris gave a masterclass in expressive dialogue. It is in fact quite a small role, an observer rather than a participant in the overheated Ibsenesque games but Morris made it count in so many ways and you wished that a little more of this had rubbed off.
|Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) in Vanessa |
(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
The Baroness spends most of the opera silent, and Helene Schneiderman had a nice line in body language (though it has to be admitted that D. thought her pursed lips expression in Act One alarmingly reminiscent of Mrs Slocombe). When she did sing, Schneiderman really made her contributions count.
Zach Borichevsky certainly had the physique du role, looking every inch the dramatic hero of a Hollywood melodrama. Borichevsky never quite made us understand who this character was, seeming a little too reactive perhaps. Borichevsky's voice took on a rather over-intense quality in the upper register so that it lacked the ideally plush ease which the character needs, but he really brought out the sexily casual nature of Anatol's manner, convincing as the love interest.
As I have said, James Morris really brought the Doctor to life, making the character tell every moment on stage without pulling focus. The other two roles, the Major-Domo and the Footman were finely sung by Santa Fe Apprentices, Andrew Bogard and Andrew Simpson.
|Helene Schneiderman, Virginie Verrez and Andrew Bogard in Vanessa (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016|
In the pit Leonard Slatkin brought his great experience of the piece (Slatkin recorded it in 2002 with Christine Brewer and the BBC Symphony Orchestra) and really inspired the Santa Fe Opera orchestra highlight both the lyrical beauties and the complexities of Barber's score.
Having finally seen Vanessa, I am intrigued by the combination of complexity and beauty in the piece. Robinson and his cast, successfully brought out the real beauty of the piece and I hope that the spell cast convinces people that this is an opera worth exploring.
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Quirky combination: Haydn and Ligeti - Cd review
- Sylvan delights:Gounod's La Colombe at West Green House
- Fascinating sound-world: Bartosz Glowacki on accordion - concert review
- The youthful miller: Robert Murray in Schubert's song cycle - CD review
- Birthday barber: Glyndebourne's production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla at the BBC Proms - opera review
- More than easy listening: Clara Sanabras' A hum about mine ears - CD review
- Vivid classicism: Danae Dörken, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Lars Vogt in Mozart & Mendelssohn - CD review
- Seriously comic: Rossini's La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park - opera review
- Sparkle and discipline: Die Fledermaus at Opera Holland Park - Opera review
- Chorus vel organa: Geoffrey Webber and Choir of Gonville & Caius College - CD review
- Remarkable swansong: Tristan & Isolde at Grange Park Opera - Opera review
- Nocturnal variations: Ruby Hughes & Joseph Middleton in Schubert, Berg, Mahler, Britten - CD review