Barber's 'Vanessa' gets superb rendering by Washington Opera

January 17, 1995|By David Donovan | David Donovan,Special to The Sun

The opera "Vanessa," a neglected American masterpiece by Samuel Barber, was given a superb production by the Washington Opera Saturday in the opening performance of its month-long run at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

The opera, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera Jan. 15, 1958, was immediately hailed and p,5l won the Pulitzer Prize for music. With the libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, "Vanessa" represented only the second time in music history that two great composers collaborated in an operatic effort (the other being Arrigo Boito and Giuseppe Verdi in "Otello"). Menotti has a marvelous libretto, and Barber responded with a gloriously tragic score.

The two central characters in this opera are Vanessa and her niece, Erika. Vanessa has waited for 20 years for her lover to return, shrouding the mirrors against her advancing years.

The opera begins with a short, brooding overture when Vanessa's lover, Anatol, is expected to return. Instead, his son arrives, a shallow young man also named Anatol. Vanessa takes the man for an impostor and after a fainting rage leaves the grand salon. Erika discovers who the young man is and the scene ends with the two on the way to a seductive evening together. One month later, Vanessa falls in love with the younger Anatol.

The triangle of Vanessa, Erika and Anatol forms the dramatic and musical core of the opera.

The two women in the principal roles handled the musical demands but were not on the same level dramatically. Charlotte Hellekant was a mesmerizing Erika, combining the strength of character and the vulnerable sensitivity that this vocally demanding role presents. She was the most believable character on stage.

Elizabeth Holleque was good, but not entirely convincing, as Vanessa.

The role of Anatol was even less successful in this production. The character is supposed to be a handsome and confident young man, but William Joyner seemed to have two stage postures -- standing erect and leaning backward. His voice is not unpleasant, unless he wants to dazzle with his vocal power; then a truly forced fortissimo results.

Josepha Gayer's Baroness was much better. She perfectly portrayed the mother and grandmother that had endured in quiet pain for decades. Her big aria in the third act was thrilling.

The other roles were given excellent performances.

The great role of the Doctor was portrayed by Richard Stillwell, who played it with great style and elegance. Thomas Paul's Nicholas was a major-domo of Rosenkavierian dimensions. Mr. Paul and Mr. Stillwell have excellent vocal arsenals and know how to live their characters on stage.

The orchestra and conductor need particular attention. Because the pit in the Eisenhower Theater can handle about only 40 players, the strings were greatly reduced and a more Stravinskian (the neoclassic one, not the style of the early ballets) orchestral color resulted. Anne Manson, a masterful conductor, worked within the limitations to give a passionate account of the score.

The sets by Michael Yeargan were a visual delight, highlighting the knotty branches of the forest. The costumes by Martin Pakledinaz were elegant and well matched to this drawing-room tragedy.

This is a focused and dynamic production, made all the more impressive by the fact the Washington Opera is in the midst of presenting three productions almost simultaneously -- "Semele" and "The Bartered Bride" are the others. This achievement is one of the early triumphs of the musical year.

"VANESSA"

Where: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center, Washington

When: Wednesday, Friday, Jan. 23, 26 and 29; Feb. 4, 10, 13, 16 and 19. 7:30 p.m. curtain time, except Jan. 29 and Feb. 19 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $50 to $150

Call: (202) 416-7818

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