For all Samuel Barber’s skill as a spinner of memorable melody, success as an opera composer stopped just short of his doorstep. His two major efforts in the field do circulate on the strength of his fame in other regards. “Antony and Cleopatra” fares well, furthermore, for its scenic opportunities, and “Vanessa,” his first major opera, thrives on the peculiar virtue of providing hobby-horse possibilities to leading singers somewhat past their vocal prime. Currently the latter opera is stabled at the Los Angeles Opera, where New Zealand’s much-admired Kiri Te Kanawa, who owns up to 60, rides it very well.
Drawn by librettist Gian Carlo Menotti (himself no mean operatic composer) from one of Isak Dinesen’s gloom-drenched “Seven Gothic Tales,” the cynical plot steers lovelorn Vanessa, not yet recovered from a jilting 20 years earlier, into the arms of a suave gold digger while those around her stand idly by. Barber’s music, never less than professional and for the most part rather pretty, twitches this way and that and eventually fails to serve the strong plotline with music of a comparably strong point of view. The opera’s one famous scene is a brilliant quintet near the end in which major characters voice conflicting views of the ironic dilemma surrounding them in a hard-edged vocal counterpoint worthy of a latter-day Mozart.
Los Angeles Opera’s production, splendidly marshaled on the podium by Australia-born Simone Young and newly produced by John Cox, draws on sets and costumes from previous stagings at Monte Carlo and Strasbourg. Included among the current performers is veteran mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias, cast as the elderly Baroness (mother of Vanessa), who appeared in the 1958 Metropolitan Opera premiere of the opera as the ingenue Erika. That latter role is now strongly sung by Lucy Schaufer, with John Matz as the philandering Anatol.