|Lauren Flanigan (pictured in New York in 2008) returned to BU to sing the title role in “Vanessa.’’ (Carol Rosegg/New York City Opera via AP/File)|
Samuel Barber’s ‘Vanessa’ shows signs of age
Virgil Thomson once said that his composing colleague Samuel Barber lacked a “sense of the theater.’’ This was amply borne out by the concert production of his first opera, “Vanessa,’’ at Boston University on Tuesday. In the last act, to take just one example, the leading lady, Vanessa, turns to her mother, who has been disapprovingly silent through most of the romantic entanglements of the preceding acts, and sings, “I would not love you, if you weren’t my own mother.’’ It was one of many lines that brought titters from the audience and that seem, 52 years after the opera’s Metropolitan Opera premiere, surprisingly silly.
The libretto, loosely inspired by Isak Dinesen’s gothic stories, was produced by Barber’s partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, who did have a “sense of the theater’’ but not of Barber’s particular genius for quiet, sometimes ironic, often bitter introspection.
There is beautiful music, most of it eddying in the opera’s interstices. The hymn-like choral interlude at the end of Act II is striking (the chorus was excellent). The early aria by Vanessa’s niece, Erika, “Must the winter come so soon,’’ is beautiful, but it comes out of nowhere and tells us little about Erika. In any case, it is overwhelmed by Vanessa’s hysterical aria, “Do not utter a word.’’ Both are set-pieces that demand applause, which destroys any flow of the action. The high point is the final quintet (“To leave, to break’’), which reflects Barber’s contrapuntal skill, and brought out the very best in an excellent cast.
For this free public concert in Barber’s centennial year, several fine student performers gathered around star soprano Lauren Flanigan, who happens to be a BU alum. Flanigan has a gracious presence and a strong, if somewhat steely upper register, and she has sung for years at the world’s big opera houses. She sang Vanessa at the New York City Opera in 2007, and has the part still in her voice and hands. With a few intelligent gestures, she conveyed the illusion of character, although one didn’t perceive it was the character of a dangerous egotist, as Vanessa clearly is. (If this were a play, she’d have to be done by Bette Davis. That Barber and Menotti fail to reflect the dark side of her in the music is perhaps the opera’s central weakness.)
As Erika, mezzo-soprano Rachel Hauge conveyed both vulnerability and passion, and, amazingly, matched Flanigan in vocal authority and stage presence. As the Doctor, Adrian Smith sang with beautiful tone and sold the tipsy aria of Act III. The tenor Clay Hilley sang Anatol’s strenuous music well; he did convey the shallow vanity that makes Anatol such a fine match for Vanessa. Amy Oraftik sang well as the Baroness, and maintained her offended silence with consistency. Under the conductor William Lumpkin, the student orchestra sounded ragged at times, at other times quite fine, particularly the strings. This was the three-act version Barber created in 1964, condensed from four acts.
David Perkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.