One of the handful of great American operas, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Vanessa” has made a welcome return to New York in City Opera’s moving new production. Despite an uneven cast, this shamefully neglected work makes a profound impression thanks in part to the ferocious performances of its two female leads and the pungent conducting of debutante Anne Manson.
Originally premiered at the Met in 1958, “Vanessa” has been a stranger to Gotham’s major professional stages since its last revival for a brief run of five Met performances in 1965. Audiences did not seem to warm to this dark tale — equal parts Chekhov and Dinesen — and Barber’s accessible romantic musical idiom ran counter to the prevailing atonal tastes of the time. Now that melody is back in fashion, “Vanessa” has been gaining a foothold in American opera houses.
The sets and costumes for this production are from the Dallas Opera; its director, Michael Kahn, has already staged it in that city and in Washington, D.C.
It’s hard to remain untouched by this original story of three generations of women and their thwarted attempts to find romantic permanence. Its wintry setting in a snowbound mansion “in a Northern country” almost evokes the feeling of an Ingmar Bergman film, and Barber’s seething score vividly captures the thoughts and moods these characters strive to repress. In the very best sense, it sounds like a memorable film score of its era. Had Barber wanted, he could have made a name for himself in Hollywood right alongside Elmer Bernstein, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann.
Lauren Flanigan, widely considered one of the best singing actresses in the business, gives a poignant performance in the title role as a self-deluded, faded beauty whose last chance at happiness promises to be short-lived. Her voice has recently grown in size and thrust, yet she has the rare ability to draw an audience close with the intimacy and naturalness of her portrayals.
Matching her every step of the way is mezzo Katharine Goeldner as her anguished niece Erika, who opts for solitude rather than a simulacrum of love. Goeldner’s intensity is shattering, and she rivets attention during the many moments when called upon to remain alone onstage with her tortured thoughts.
Historical continuity is provided by 78-year-old Rosalind Elias, who created the role of Erika in 1958 and here plays her grandmother a reclusive Baroness. It’s a nice idea, but Elias no longer possesses enough voice for the part, nor does she emanate the forbidding hauteur essential to the character.
Veteran baritone Richard Stilwell cuts a memorable figure as the aged Doctor. He’s especially touching in the final act, in which he comes face to face with his shortcomings as a doctor and a human being. If he does not sound entirely comfortable vocally in the role, it’s likely because it lies too low for him, as it was written to be sung by a basso.
As the caddish young Anatol, who steals the hearts of both Vanessa and Erika, Ryan MacPherson seems an odd choice. Anatol must command the stage with his charismatic aura of mystery; MacPherson sings well enough, but his voice, stature and presence are those of a character tenor. During his duets with Flanigan, she’s the one you watch, and certainly the one you hear, as she tends to drown him out.
Director Kahn makes the most of every dramatic moment, of which there are many in this hothouse score. Martin Pakledinaz’s lush late-19th century costumes are effective, though they occasionally go overboard — Vanessa’s red dress stands out like a fire engine. The unit set by Michael Yeargan and the evocative lighting by Jeff Harris aptly convey the story’s snowbound gloom, but for some reason Erika’s bedroom looks more like servant quarters.
Manson’s conducting is alive to every detail of Barber’s rich score. It’s good to hear this music in such capable hands. Now it’s time for either the Met or City Opera to revive Barber’s other full-length opera, “Antony and Cleopatra,” and to break the spell that attended its disastrous 1966 Met premiere.