Tuesday, September 24, 2013

To This We've Come

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.

Reviews elsewhere:


Michael Strickland said...

It's fascinating how the music of some composers gets better with each passing year (Poulenc and Britten come to mind) while others sound less interesting as time goes by. Every time something of Barber's is played at the Symphony, it's always a huge disappointment to me, and I'm starting to think it's a case of a composer not aging well.

Robert Gordon said...

I think the way to understand Vanessa is as a version of that great 1950s gay archtype, The Spinster and the Stud. That makes it a cousin of Streetcar Named Desire, or Sweet Bird of Youth, or Picnic, or The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, or Summertime. Menotti had done this before, in The Old Maid and the Thief.

What makes Vanessa kind of creepy is that it is covert about what it is doing -- Tennesee Williams, Wm Inge, etc were accused of that in their day, but they provided enough psychology and also eloquence so that good actors could make the thing live. The motivations in Vanessa are external to the piece, almost in secret code. I suppose that Menotti expected the music to supply what good writing and acting bring to Streetcar et al, but perhaps The Spinster and the Stud didn't speak to Barber the way it did to Menotti.

There's a vein of camp running through Vanessa in other ways as well, for example in the non-specific Euro-aristocratic milieu (another example of this is the Auden-Kalman libretto for Elegy for Young Lovers).

In short, I think Vanessa has a closet problem. It's not about what it's about, as they used to say (unjustly) about Company. Hence the weirdly inauthentic feeling of the piece.

Joshua Kosman said...

Robert, thank you for that brilliant exegesis. It's so obvious once you say it, and it absolutely helps clarify why nothing in the piece quite works.

Henry Holland said...

I don't agree with Mr. Strickland, I think Barber's best music --the 3 Essays for Orchestra, the School for Scandal Overture, Medea's Dance of Vengeance, Knoxville: Summer 1915 and especially the ravishing, wonderful violin concerto-- are top drawer pieces.

The two operas, well, that's a different story. I saw LA Opera's production of Vanessa and having liked the RCA recording of it, I went hoping it worked on stage. It did, sort of, but as Mr. Gordon points out, it felt inauthentic, as if it were assembled using a checklist: arias for the diva (check), melodramatic plot (check) etc.

Anthony and Cleopatra is just sad, it simply doesn't work at all, either the original version or the revision. Its failure wounded Barber deeply and except for the Third Essay, he never really wrote anything of quality again.

Plus, in his prime, he was drop dead gorgeous:

Lisa Hirsch said...

I listened to the Violin Concerto not long ago and did not love it, but I am willing to give it another try. Knoxville, and the Hermit Songs, are wonderful pieces, and of course the string quartet from which the Adagio is taken.