By James L. Paulk
SANTA FE, N.M. — Ever since the premiere of Marvin David Levy’s The Tower during its 1957 inaugural season, Santa Fe Opera has programmed a hefty share of contemporary opera. So it seems odd that Samuel Barber’s Vanessa hasn’t been done here until now, especially given the prominence it obtained after its 1958 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. Vanessa’s popularity has waned over the years, yet it has never left the repertoire.
The omission has now been corrected, as this season’s big event (seen July 30) is James Robinson’s striking new production conducted by Leonard Slatkin and featuring an ideal cast. The opera, with a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, Barber’s life partner, is set in a Scandinavian country and has a brooding, horror-story sensibility in both text and score. So Robinson took inspiration from the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as from early Ingmar Bergman films, especially Thirst and Crisis.
The result, achieved via an elegant parlor in a box, a grand staircase, and other movable set elements designed by Allen Moyer, has a silvery monochrome palette and is sumptuously lit by Christopher Akerlind, giving the stage a decidedly cinematic, noir sensibility that underlines the mood of the opera. James Schuette’s graceful formal costumes enhance the 1940s period feel.
The demanding title role was written for Maria Callas, who turned it down. (Eleanor Steber sang the world premiere at the Met on short notice, after Sena Jurinac withdrew.) Deluded to the point of madness, Vanessa has secluded herself for 20 years awaiting the return of Anatol, who abandoned her. When his son arrives, she blindly transfers all her obsessive passion to him, ignoring his callow nature and his intense relationship with her niece, Erika. Soprano Erin Wall sang the title role with a powerful, resplendent voice — bright, with a sharp edge, and an expressive, nuanced approach that let us see her characters flaws full on. A towering performance.
Callas may have avoided Vanessa because she feared being upstaged by the more sympathetic character of Erika, and that is almost what happened here. The company took a chance, casting French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, a recent Juilliard graduate with relatively little experience, in the role. Her sumptuous voice was nicely matched with fine acting skills, making the impulsive, sulking, stubborn Erika a sympathetic, almost noble heroine.
American tenor Zach Borichevsky was less satisfying as Anatol, without the vocal color and warmth that might have demonstrated why both Vanessa and Erika are so smitten. He was better at revealing the selfish, opportunistic nature of his character.
As the Baroness, Canadian mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman balanced her character’s haughtiness with her sensibility in a riveting performance. Distinguished veteran bass-baritone James Morris portrayed the folksy Old Doctor with tons of charisma.
Barber was a highly successful concert composer, and the orchestral score for Vanessa, his first opera, is symphonic in sweep and range, sometimes in ways unconnected to the libretto. In Slatkin’s hands, it became the real star of the show: precise, with a dark and visceral power all its own. Performances continue through Aug. 24.
The sound world of Vanessa echoes that of Richard Strauss, and Santa Fe Opera has been America’s “house of Strauss” ever since its inception. Impresario John Crosby, who founded the company and ran it until 2000, was obsessed with Strauss operas, which he liked to conduct himself. Amazingly, he fit one into the company’s short season pretty much every summer. These performances have become somewhat less frequent since Crosby’s departure, yet surely there is no other opera company even now with such a high percentage of stage time devoted to the composer.
This year, Santa Fe presented a new Tim Albery production of Capriccio (seen July 27), the composer’s eccentric final opera, which had its American professional premiere here in 1958. This is actually the fourth season it has been programmed here over the years.
In Capriccio, Strauss sets an extended conversation he co-wrote with librettist Clemens Krauss about “Which comes first, words or music?” As is usual these days, it was performed in two acts, rather than the 140-minute one-act version intended by Strauss. Albery updated the time frame to the 1950s and placed the action in a quirky unit set depicting a very modern international-style house with an incongruous central parlor seemingly styled after Versailles, and a stunning mountain landscape visible through French doors. It was a suitably elegant background, even if it didn’t quite make sense.
Strauss’ sopranos almost always get the good stuff, and here the star is the Countess, performed by American soprano Amanda Majeski. Her fluttering tone sounds like something from old wax: I kept thinking of my grandmother’s recordings of Jeanette MacDonald. But the sound is lush and focused, and it works well for the role. She has great charm and stage presence.
The excellent Susan Graham gave us a glamorous star turn as Clairon, the other female in the cast. Clairon has so much recitative that for most of the opera it’s more of a speaking role, but Graham got to soar a few times, and she managed to make her character believable and sympathetic.
The tenor role of Flamand, a composer, arguably has the best musical chops of any of the male characters, and here he was portrayed by Ben Bliss, a fast-rising tenor with just about the sweetest tone around. All of the other roles were nicely cast.
The company’s interest in French composers has evolved and expanded over the decades, and this season it introduced Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette into the mix. Stephen Lawless’ production updated Shakespeare’s classic tale to 1860s America. This generated occasional incongruities. For example, the men wore spiffy military uniforms, some red and some blue, but not U.S. Army (nor Confederate, for that matter), and for recreation they casually took in a ballet.
Still, the update allowed for a universalist statement and a sumptuously beautiful costume drama, with the ladies in stunning gowns. Stage movement and acting were energetic to the point of occasional hamminess, with a few too many gimmicks: Juliette sang “Ah! Je veux vivre” while playing with a champagne bottle.
Yet overall, Lawless and his team put together a grand spectacle of acrobatic fights, mobs, and intimate conversations, all set in an attractive dark mausoleum emphasizing the opera’s dark core.
At the performance I attended (July 29), all ears were focused on Joshua Guerrero, the cover who stepped in at the 11th hour as Roméo after Steven Costello became ill. A prodigy of the LA Opera program who sang the role last summer at Aspen, he has a fervent and flexible, pinging tenor sound. The Juliette was the acclaimed soprano Ailyn Pérez, whose large, bright sound and fine coloratura technique are ideal for the role. She had a few tentative moments, and her sound sometimes was strident, but the overall performance was thrilling and glamorous.
The rest of the cast was generally excellent. Standouts included baritone Elliot Madore, a striking Mercutio, and bass Raymond Aceto, a powerful Frère Laurent. The British conductor Harry Bicket, Santa Fe’s chief conductor, paced things well and brought a nice energy to the score. Performances continue through Aug. 25.
The season also includes a new Ron Daniels production of Don Giovanni, conducted by John Nelson, with Daniel Okulitch in the title role, and a Richard Jones production of La Fanciulla del West, led by Emmanuel Villaume, starring Patricia Racette as Minnie.
For more information about the season, go here.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.