Thursday, September 06, 2012


VANESSA             New Production Premiere
Oper Frankfurt    2 September 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa 

Musikalische Leitung
Jonathan Darlington
Katharina Thoma
Bühnenbild und Kostüme
Julia Müer
Olaf Winter
Michael Clark

Charlotta Larsson
Jenny Carlstedt
Alte Baronin
Helena Döse
Kurt Streit
Der alte Doktor
Dietrich Volle
Nicholas, Haushofmeister
Björn Bürger
Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester 

Set and costumes: Julia Müer
When Samuel Barber’s Vanessa received its widely acclaimed World Premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on 15 January 1958, a substantial segment of the well-heeled audience in attendance could relate viscerally to the milieu in which its story is set.  The subject of finances comes up only fleetingly in the opera, but Vanessa deals with people descended from Old Money.  Lots of it.  Landed and titled, they live in a dimension far from the madding crowd. 

The demographics were the same if not more so, when I attended the fourth iteration of the Met’s production less than a month later at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.  A goodly lot of that audience was made of Old Money.  No wonder the Franklin Mint is resident in the City of Brotherly Lucre.  As a resourceless schoolboy who saved months of lunch money for a ticket to my second opera ever, I must have been the exception that made those demos democratic.

As it turned out, Vanessa became an object lesson of my youth.  Having recently experienced the first pangs of desire at the time, I was sorely dismayed to be shown that wealth doesn’t necessarily enable you to deal with the cravings for what I still haven’t begun to understand.  So it was the libretto more than the music that got me.  In the years since that evening, I've become convinced that it's the strength of Vanessa’s libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti as much as the quality of Barber’s music, which has caused it to fold gradually into the repertories of opera houses around the world.   

Vanessa tells a strange, sad tale.

Charlotta Larsson, Kurt Streit

After years of pining for the return of her great love Anatol, a visitor arrives at Vanessa’s estate, who turns out to be her long-lost lover’s son, also named Anatol.  While Vanessa reluctantly opens her arms to her young guest, her spinsterish niece Erika offers him a part of her own anatomy. With equal promptness, she prevents nature from taking its due course, by twice turning down Anatol’s marriage proposal and cheesing the bun he's thrust into her oven.  That leaves Vanessa, despite her suspicions of hanky-panky between Erika and Anatol, free to marry the scion of the love of her life and sally forth with him to -- where else? -- Paris.   Having renounced one chance for love, it is now Erika’s turn to await another.

Odd perhaps, but the demographics of opening nights at the opera haven’t changed much since the days of Vanessa’s premiere at the Met.  A near-sellout audience of opera subventioniers, sundry dignitaries and a lotta yotta-wealthy movers/shakers of the international banking scene assembled
this past Sunday at Oper Frankfurt’s first-ever performance of Vanessa in Barber's 1965 revised version for the Met. 

Jenny Carlstedt, Anna Larsson
Katharina Thoma’s production with sets and costumes by Julia Müer was first unveiled at the Malmö Opera in 2009 and has been brought to Oper Frankfurt through substantial support of its patrons.  Julia Müer’s unit set depicts the psychological split in the state of mind that has beset Vanessa’s household, in which her grandmother and her niece also reside: On one side, the elegantly appointed but somewhat dreary drawing room of her family's mansion; on the other, a rocky slope, where quiddities of ghosts share the substance of what has become of their sad lives.  
Charlotta Larssom. Kurt Streit, Jenny Carlstedt

Oper Frankfurt’s cast for the premiere was about as vocally apt as you could find these days.  Jenny Carlstedt commanded the stage from the start as the poor, not-so-little rich girl Erika.  Tall, regal and parsing out a stream of warm, velvety tone, especially in her aria Must the winter come so soon..., she made the part sympathetic and compelling.  In the eponymous role Charlotta Larsson looked almost too young and attractive for the role, but she but succeeded in sustaining Vanessa’s illusion/delusion of love lost/regained.  Her large lyrico-spinto shone best in Vanessa’s scena Do not utter a word... While English-speaking singers have no special leverage in articulating the language, American Kurt Streit as Anatol was best understood among the cast.  The role allows him to purvey his upper middle register thrillingly, and his acting treads a fine high-wire between sincerity and self-serving seity.  Oper Frankfurt veteran Helena Döse made a welcome appearance as the Old Baroness.  Dietrich Volle pleased the crowd with his portrayal of the opera's most appealing principal character, the family Doctor.  Björn Bürger discharged his duties as the House Steward

Speaking of tall, an emotionally charged moment in which Vanessa and Erika face each other down is vitiated in Thoma's staging, by having Carlstedt and Larsson standing opposite each other center-stage.  Carlstedt erect is nearly a head taller than Larsson, which leaves Erika peering down her nose at her aunt, when it should be the other way round.  This is an unintentional knee-slapper that should be remedied and quickly. 
Björn Bürger, Dietrich Volle
Jonathan Darlington moved the pacing along without losing his grip on the sometimes unwieldy intricacies of the instrumentation.  The Chorus of Oper Frankfurt and the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester performed with attentiveness and lucidity.  
Helena Döse
Persuasive arguments could be made for re-titling the opera Erika, for it is much more her story than Vanessa’s.  Or more simply, switch their names and retain the title.  If Vanessa is the central character, the plot waxes pedestrian, proving only that people come to those who wait.  If Erika is the key character, she demonstrates that noblesse can indeed have oblige, even in family matters, as she spares her aunt the truth of her involvement with Anatol and embarks on a solitary journey aboard a landau named Desire.

By the bye, you can see the interview segment I produced for WPIX-TV News New York with Rosalind Elias. who created the role of Erika at the Metropolitan Opera.  Check out the complete 3-part interview from which the segment was packaged and you'll find her relating how Barber came to compose Must the winter come so soon... for her.

Photographs: Barbara Aumüller
Grafix:  Sam H. Shirakawa 

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