Sarasota Opera presents a handsome, mostly effective “Vanessa”

March 20, 2012

Kara Shay Thomson stars in the title role of Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington

As important and ambitious as Sarasota Opera’s long-running cycle of Verdi’s complete works has been, the company’s new American Classics series may well prove an even more significant and lasting contribution to the national opera scene.

Unlike the works of Giuseppe Verdi, the rich and varied body of American opera remains underperformed and even ignored, shamefully so, by the nation’s major companies, which should have a sense of mission about promoting our own homegrown masterworks.  San Francisco Opera is proving an exception with three world premieres by American composers scheduled for 2013 alone.

But great American operas of the past continue to languish and Sarasota Opera’s artistic director Victor DeRenzi deserves much credit for launching this ambitious series, which presents a revival of an important American opera every season. This year it is Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, heard Sunday afternoon.

Barber is most renown today for works like the Adagio for Strings and Violin Concerto, yet it is perhaps his vocal music that is his greatest legacy, including his operas, Knoxville, Summer of 1915, and more than one hundred songs.

Vanessa tells of the title wealthy European countess who has spent years awaiting the return of her long-lost lover Anatol, while living in a shuttered mansion with her mother the Baroness and her niece Erika. A man returns yet it is not the expected Anatol, but his son of the same name. The handsome but caddish young man soon throws the house and three generations of women into an uproar, seducing Erika, while romancing Vanessa and alienating the Countess.  Erika becomes pregnant by Anatol and in an attempt to commit suicide survives but loses the baby. Ultimately Anatol marries Vanessa and they depart. Just like her aunt, Erika recovers the mirrors and shutters the house preparing to take on the lonely hermetic life of her aunt— until a man comes to rescue her as well.

Barber’s opera, premiered at the Met in 1958, has not aged gracefully and has undeniable weaknesses. Most obvious is Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto, which today sounds stiff and self-conscious in its poetic imagery. More broadly, the scenario often veers perilously close to Lifetime soap-opera kitsch, and a kind of operatic chick-lit fluff.

What almost makes up for the weak and talky scenario is Barber’s music—restless, roiling, smartly scored and soaring to ecstatic heights in its sudden bursts of lyrical solo arias.

As with last year’s production of Robert Ward’s The Crucible, which launched the American Classics project, voices proved adequate rather than inspired with too much of the singing tending towards the merely loud rather than nuanced.

Kara Shay Thomson possesses the imposing voice and regal dignity required for the long-suffering Vanessa, whose life is restored with the appearance of Anatol, the younger. But Sunday afternoon her singing sounded far too loud and harsh, with top notes glassy and strident.

As Erika, Audrey Babcock provided the best all-around performance. Like Thomson, Babcock also tended to oversing but the mezzo also brought a sense of more expressive vocal detailing and was effective dramatically, starkly conveying Erika’s pain and the regression of her character caused by Anatol’s seduction and abandonment.

Scott Piper proved a mostly admirable Anatol. The tenor lacks some of the personal charismatic qualities necessary for this seductive mystery caller yet made up the balance with a big-boned tenor, though the singer often sounded stretched at the top of his range.

The Old Baroness is largely a silent sentinel but Cindy Sadler brought authority and aged gravitas to her fitful utterances. As the Doctor, Thomas Potter was slightly over the top in his mildly drunken scene in Act 2, but largely provided the right decent if personally clueless center of moral equilibrium.

Michael Schweikardt’s handsome sets provided an apt sense of stiff, somewhat decaying bourgeois propriety, enhanced by Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s elegant costumes.

The most consistent advocacy of the afternoon was provided by conductor David Neely, who led an idiomatic and engaging account of Barber’s challenging score, drawing playing of great power and transparency. The large orchestra contributed energized and polished ensemble throughout, apart from some jarringly fallible horn playing.

Sarasota Opera deserves great credit for launching the American Classics series. But if this laudable project is to be noteworthy for more than good intentions, the company needs to take more care with casting and work harder to find new singers that will bring the artistry and vocal gleam to make these works come across with the impact they deserve.

Vanessa will be repeated 8 p.m. March 21 and 1:30 p.m. March 24. sarasotaoperaorg.

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