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A scene from "Vanessa" (Pacific Opera Theatre)
A scene from "Vanessa" (Pacific Opera Theatre)

Music: Opera review

Vanessa promises and frustrates Add to ...


  • Opera by Samuel Barber
  • Pacific Opera Victoria
  • Royal Theatre in Victoria on Saturday

Samuel Barber's 1957 opera Vanessa opens with a brooding modernist score reminiscent of a soundtrack to a Hitchcock thriller.

It threatens, and it insinuates, preparing the listener for a psychological profundity that, in the end, it never delivers. That is both the promise and the frustration of this odd little opera, which received one of its rare revivals by Pacific Opera Victoria this season under the adept baton of POV artistic director Timothy Vernon.

Gian Carlo Menotti's clumsy libretto, which attempts to recreate the atmosphere of Danish writer Isak Dinesen's (Karen Blixen) Seven Gothic Tales without actually borrowing one of its stories, immediately dangles archetypes before us: Erika, niece of Vanessa, reads to her aunt, who anxiously awaits the visit of a lover she hasn't seen in 20 years, and what does she read? Oedipus! And who should appear at the door of this fairy-tale mansion in a frosty landscape whose mirrors have been covered these 20 years?

Not Vanessa's lover, Anatol, but his son of the same name, an amoral and opportunistic young man who woos both women without effort or discrimination.

The libretto is littered with sidelong pretensions to mythic resonance. Anataol calls Erika a sphinx. Vanessa refers to Erika and her own mother, who has long refused to speak to her (why?), as harpies. Minor characters might be sires or lovers; a baby is conceived and aborted; a cycle of eternal recurrence is set into motion. By the end of the opera Anatol and Vanessa marry, leaving Erika alone with her inexplicably silent grandmother, and the mirrors are sheeted again. In the meantime we have had much portentous talk of past and memory, of beauty ("the hardest gift to shelter"), and of a modern age that has no time for the "idle gestures" of love.

Equally, we've had dialogue of numbing banality.

Barber does what he can with this, often giving characters music that belies the words they sing ("brief" set to a long tone; "happy" set a high, hyperbolic wail). Our only hope of knowing what these people really think is through the music. Love is denied with Wagnerian eroticism. The orchestra entreats and rejects in one voice, pounds out brutal, modernist truths in another.

The cast looks just as it should: Stephanie Marshall's Erika is pale, slim and princess-lovely; Wendy Nielsen's Vanessa is a handsome woman of a certain age whose beauty has hardened; Adam Luther's Anatol is a dapper, affable, unmuscled hedonist. Voices also match character: Luther's lyrical tenor is attractive and smooth, Marshall's mezzo- soprano is fresh, appealing and passionate, and Nielsen's shows its age, histrionic in height, volume and wobble. And, in smaller roles, Andrew Greenwood's old doctor and Sean Sager's footman were notable for fine characterizations and pleasant singing.

But Barber's vocal lines tend not to flatter, and the prosody, although perhaps deliberately so, is awkward. Less vibrato all round - especially from Nielsen - would have given this complicated but intriguing music more immediate appeal.

Alas we can't forgive Glynis Leyshon, whose direction was otherwise unfussy and efficient, for inventing an extra character, albeit a mute one, referred to as "Nemesis" in the credits and danced by Treena Stubel. Costumed as an antlered, wintry Gollum with a strip of white fur down its back, this character seems to have escaped from an amateur production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and shadows the action like an overcurious child. Jacques Lemay's choreography is as earnest and unimaginative as a high-school interpretive dance class, all angular elbows and writhing torso. Imagine plopping such a figure into Tosca or Fidelio. Irrelevant, to a mythic degree.

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