I had been looking forward for quite some time to West Edge Opera's semi-staged production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa, because I've been wondering about the opera for a good long time. I even listed it in season 5 of my Fantasy Opera series.
I hoped it would be a lost masterpiece, but it turns out that when an opera sinks like a stone and doesn't get performed often, there are usually good reasons for that. In the case of Vanessa, the problems are simple: the libretto and the music.
The libretto, by Barber's life partner Gian Carlo Menotti, is a mess: it's wordy, overwrought, and lacking in psychological insight into the characters. Just why did Vanessa go into seclusion for 20 years, awaiting the return of the lover who deserted her? Just how does that lover's son, who must be many years younger than Vanessa, fall for her? Just why does niece Erika disclose what young Anatol did to her too late and to the wrong person? Maybe we've all been in analysis and can figure this out for ourselves.
As for the music, it has some fine moments, mostly when Barber manages to forget that it's 1958 and he's supposed to be writing dissonant modernist music, not the big arching tunes and postromantic harmonies he was good at. And there are some fine arias and ensembles and lovely moments. But too much of the rest of it sounds like watered-down Bernard Hermann. (Note that I consider Hermann a great composer, but too much of this score sounds like outtakes from Psycho.) The work is also weirdly balanced, with the first two acts totally 90 minutes and the second a bit less than one hour. WEO performed it as two acts, and boy, those were 90 very long minutes.
Weirdly, the WEO web site has a quotation that you might think comes directly from 1950s reviews of the piece - "hopeless conservative, shameless neo-Romantic and lushly tonal panderer." A little web searching reveals that this is Anthony Tommasini, writing a 2007 review of a Vanessa performance and describing past reactions to the work, rather than quoting from specific reviews. He does not name the critics who dismissed Vanessa. WEO goes on to make some claims I don't agree with, including that we've "sent dissonant music from the 1950s to the archive" (not me) and prefer to experience in the intense lyricism of works such as Vanessa. Well, I have nothing against 20th c. romanticism, but Vanessa is a stylistic mishmash and, uh, just not very good.
WEO's orchestra was smaller than ideal - a dozen or so strings where 40 would have been appropriate - and sounded more than a little scrappy and underrehearsed through most of the evening; a number of singers from Berkeley's Chora Nova provided the too-small chorus.
Far and away the best part of the evening was the singers, who were excellent all around. Marie Plette sang beautifully and kept a straight face as the overly-patient Vanessa, while Nikola Printz made a sensational rich-toned and vulnerable Erika. Lyric tenor Jonathan Boyd was a terrific Anatol (the CAD), and Malin Fritz an excellent Old Baroness. Local favorite Philip Skinner made a great drunken doctor, the comic relief in a mostly grim opera. Mark Streshinsky relocated the action to the 1950s, which resulted in some anachronisms (sleighs??) but mostly worked.