Nostalgia, as Peter de Vries observed, isn’t what it used to be. Take Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, which was discovered by the New York City Opera on Sunday.
At the time of the Met premiere in 1958, hosannas resounded on high. Progressives, mostly European, may have bemoaned a lack of originality in this mushy Gothic romance, but conservatives, mostly American, didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they didn’t notice.
To this iconoclast, Barber’s score seems redolent of cheap perfume, wrong-note harmonies and orchestral busy-music supporting vocal indulgence with knowing nods to Puccini, Wagner and Strauss. At least Vanessa boasts some pretty set-pieces, and a haunting imitative quintet sends ’em home sighing at the end. Even more problematic is Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto, a prissy essay in purple poetry, a stilted melodrama that pretends to explore deception, delusion and frustration. The word settings, both inept and inapt, offer so many mis-stressed syllables that for once the redundant “supertitles” seem essential.
Fortunately, the production accentuates the positive. Michael Kahn, the unblushing director, plays the period piece straight and moves his players with picturesque care. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, created for Dallas in 1993, define mood and character with illustrative restraint.
The strong cast is led by Lauren Flanigan as the ageing protagonist, a women blinded by a dubious promise of love. The soprano argues Vanessa’s unsympathetic case with temperamental bravado and vocal lustre. Katharine Goeldner validates the amorous hysteria of young Erika, her suave mezzo-soprano conveying well-focused pathos. Rosalind Elias, much celebrated as Erika 48 years ago, assumes the almost mute duties of the old Baroness with quiet urgency.
Ryan MacPherson ennobles the caddish stances of Anatol with a ringing tenor and exemplary diction. Richard Stilwell, a knowing veteran of many operatic wars, brings baritonal bonhomie to the crusty platitudes of the Doctor.
Making her debut in the well-staffed pit, Anne Mason conducts as if Barber had written a masterpiece. It is, of course, the best way to deal with sentimental claptrap.
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