- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

The Washington Opera opened its new production of Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" last weekend at the Kennedy Center's Opera House. This production boasts one of modern opera's true superstars, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, in the title role, and the debut of young American tenor John Matz as her romantic lead.

Musically rich but dramatically moody, "Vanessa" was first performed in a glitzy world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958, under the baton of the legendary Dmitri Mitropoulos. The opera went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for music and was the first American opera ever staged at the prestigious Salzburg Festival.

Based on a fairy tale by Isak Dinesen and set in an unnamed Scandinavian country, "Vanessa" is an intensely introspective, almost Freudian interpretation of the clash between the harshness of reality and the fantasy of romantic love, all disguised as a lavish 19th- or early 20th-century costume drama. A bit like Dickens' Miss Havisham, the beautiful, middle-aged Vanessa has attempted to obliterate the passage of time by covering all portraits and mirrors in her baronial house with ghostly white cloths. She is in mourning for Anatol, the callow lover who abandoned her 20 years previously. Her bitter old mother, the Baroness, has not spoken to her for all these years, and her life is made bearable only by the company of her young niece, Erika. As the opera opens, Anatol has written, promising to return. But when he arrives, Vanessa is stunned to see that this Anatol is not her lover, but his son.

As Vanessa flees, young Anatol explains to Erika that his father is dead, but had often spoken of her aunt, causing him to seek her out. The two young people impulsively become lovers, but Anatol quickly abandons Erika for the older woman. Erika, carrying Anatol's child, flees into the wintry night, causing a miscarriage which she hides from her aunt. Newly married, Vanessa and Anatol Number Two depart for Paris, leaving behind the aged Baroness and Erika, who takes up her mother's role. The mirrors are covered and the Baroness responds with an operatic Cone of Silence while the younger woman begins anew the long wait for her own Godot.

Mr. Barber's decidedly contemporary score is lushly neo-romantic and accessible while still possessing spiky sonorities that place it firmly in the 20th century. In spite of obvious temptation, the composer never embraced the fruitless and alienating serialism so beloved of the century's out-of-touch academic composers. Thus, his posthumous reputation, bolstered by his signature "Adagio for Strings," his operas, and his numerous, intricately structured chamber and orchestral works, will long outlast the fleeting notoriety of the theory-drenched American and European atonalists.

Under the slightly bland direction of Steven Lawless, this revival of the company's 1995 production is visually arresting, with Michael Yeargen's bleak, wintry scenery and show-through walls highlighting the opera's existential undertones. The huge drawing room windows open out onto an icy expanse of snow and leafless forests, creating a sense that this is a drama that occurs within a lonely soul. Against this backdrop, Mr. Barber's music weaves an exquisite tapestry behind the singers who seek answers to life's riddles but do not find them. The only false note in this opera is its quirky, at times puerile libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti.

The Washington Opera's first-class cast was superb. As Vanessa, Kiri Te Kanawa was elegantly beautiful, her voice at once girlish and vulnerable, though at times too soft to overcome the full orchestra. Nonetheless, her lyrical approach was right for the role, her acting tasteful yet restrained, her superb diction beyond reproach and not a note out of place. It was a pleasure to see her perform with this company and she adds a real touch of class to this production.

The evening's surprise was youthful tenor John Matz as Anatol the Younger. A 24-year old understudy to tenor Jon Villars, who was supposed to have sung Anatol, Mr. Matz was elevated to the role when Mr. Villars was unable to attend rehearsals for this production. It's a big part for a relatively inexperienced young man to carry, and Mr. Matz's voice still has some room to grow. But he is a big, strapping fellow who already knows how to carry himself well, and he possesses a full, rich voice to match his physique. He proved a fine actor as well in his complex, caddish role, suffusing it with surprising complexity and sly Gen Y insights on the impermanence of modern relationships. Furthermore, he was convincing and confident as he professed love to his older and far more famous co-star, almost as if he'd been chosen for the role from the start. His was a winning company debut, mature and well-articulated.

Not to be outdone, mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was also impressive in her role as the tragic Erika, whose childish innocence rapidly collapses into a suicidal depression. Vital in Act I, Miss Schaufer's Erika by the final curtain gradually deflates into lifelessness as she awaits her miserable fate. Her voice carries a fine edge to it, and she had no problem at all on opening night in soaring above the dense texture of Mr. Barber's orchestration.

As the Doctor, baritone David Evitts played his minor part with comic wisdom. His touching aria near the end of the third act set the stage perfectly for the final quintet, one of the sterling moments in American music, as the above characters, joined by the often silent Baroness (sung here coldly by mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias, Barber's original Erika), comment ruefully upon one another's likely fates.

The orchestra, conducted by Emmanuel Joel, was well-rehearsed, displaying none of the tempo divergences that have marred past Washington Opera opening nights. At times, the entire ensemble, instrumental and vocal, sounded like a well-wrought chamber group, a gratifying effect.

Good tickets can still be had for "Vanessa" after all, it wasn't written by Puccini. If you've been indecisive up to this point, pick up the phone and take a chance. The quintet alone is worth the price of admission.


***

WHO: The Washington Opera

WHAT: Samuel Barber's "Vanessa"

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Today and Nov. 4 at 7 p.m.; Tuesday, Nov. 1 and 7 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.

Tickets: $41-$285

PHONE: 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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