Positively Barber-ic

Seattle Opera's Vanessa isn't an opera at all.

It's a lovely production, at least. Seattle Opera has done quite well by Samuel Barber's 1958 opera Vanessa. Sheri Greenawald, the company's diva of choice, heard last season in Florencia in the Amazon and La boh譥, is in opulent voice as the title character, as are Kimberly Barber as Erika and Paul Charles Clarke as Anatol. Michael Yeargan's set, all arches and tendrilly branches in cool grays and grayish-blues, has a handsome faded grandeur, and director Sharon Ott devised an intelligent, fluent, naturalistic staging. The orchestra, under Yves Abel, played tautly and powerfully.

And what was Barber's contribution to the evening? Vocal lines of astonishing arbitrariness and orchestral music of embarrassing bombast. His music follows the recipe that's doomed so much 20th-century opera: Take a text and assign random pitches to each syllable, arranging them in more or less conjunct shapes (no wide leaps between the notes), and then allow the phrases to more or less follow the contour of the dialogue as it might be spoken but which have no distinct profile, direction, or significance. Let the orchestra heave and billow underneath for two and a half hours, and there you go.

Seattle Opera

Opera House, February 27

Vanessa is not opera. An opera is more than just a play with notes attached for vocalizing, and an orchestra providing decor. (A play with incidental music is a separate and honorable genre unto itself.) An opera is a drama in music, through music. The structure of a piece of music, its own flow and integrity, provides the structure for the theatrical work as a whole; vocal lines, with their own intrinsic interest and memorability, surrounded and heightened by instrumental interplay, provide expressiveness and and emotional resonance. An operatic story is made compelling by giving it compelling music—not by giving it music that just wanders along passively and goes bam! whenever someone on stage slams a door.

This sort of simplistic onomatopoeia is the best Barber could do by way of appropriate musical illustration in Vanessa. Most of the score is overblown, reeling and writhing with no discernible connection to what's happening on stage. My favorite of several such moments was the lurching orgasm in the orchestra pit at a line that seems pretty innocuous on the face of it: "We must hurry breakfast or we shall be late for chapel." CRASH!!! Blam! Whoosh! Shudder!

And now for Gian-Carlo Menotti's libretto. As the curtain rises, Vanessa has been sitting veiled in her drawing room for 20 years, waiting for her lost lover to return. A stranger arrives, the lover's son Anatol, who falls for both Vanessa and her niece Erika, who becomes pregnant by him (the slut). Later, during Vanessa and Anatol's engagement party, Erika runs out into the freezing night and aborts the child. Vanessa and Anatol marry, leave the house, and Erika takes her aunt's former place, veiled, moping, and silent. See what happens to loose women? Eternal manlessness is the ultimate punishment.

Conceivably this misogynistic dogshit could have, with the right music and excised of a couple vulgarities, a certain affecting bittersweetness. Barber's is, at nearly every turn, the wrong music. Between the empty orchestral hubbub and the blank, meandering voice parts, the characters are reduced to zeros, unpleasant puppets for whom it's impossible to care. I tried a little post-modern experiment, listening to Barber's music as if it were satiric commentary: deliberately overwrought music spoofing the artificial and utterly uninteresting self-absorption of a bunch of aristocrats. But it wasn't easy to sustain this applied irony, especially as it was nearly impossible to remember anything I heard from one bar to the next. (How on earth could the singers have memorized this stuff? I am in awe.)

Note that I am not blaming Barber's music for being "conservative," which is a criticism often leveled at Vanessa—for Barber's failure to worship at the altar of Webern, the all-powerful compositional deity of 1958. Opera has its own musical needs, to which historical stylistic trends are irrelevant. And don't assume this is just my anti-Barber reflex kicking in; the afternoon after Vanessa's opening night I was impressed by the Seattle Youth Symphony's performance of his Knoxville: Summer of 1915, music with a real presence and purpose—both qualities almost totally lacking in his opera.

No, Vanessa fails on its own terms. Obviously not for the talented people involved in Seattle Opera's production, whose sincere belief in the work and efforts on its behalf are nothing short of heroic.

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