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Review: Samuel Barber’s Vanessa

POV presents little known pulitzer winning opera
Stephanie Marshall is Erika and Wendy Nielsen (foreground) is Vanessa in Pacific Opera Victoria's production of Vanessa at the Royal Theatre.

POV presents little known pulitzer winning opera


Pacific Opera Victoria’s annual excursion into the more remote backwaters of the opera repertoire has produced a few of their most satisfying productions as well as a few real disasters. Their current offering, American composer Samuel Barber’s Pulitzer Prize winning, though rarely performed Vanessa, while not without some pleasures and delights, is not one of their successes.

Set circa 1905 in an unspecified European location, the story concerns the aristocratic Vanessa who has been waiting for her lover, Anatol, to return lo these 20 years. She shares a rather bleak and cold manor house with her mother and her niece Erika. Anatol does indeed arrive, but turns out to be the son of the original, now deceased. He seduces and impregnates Erika, then announces that he will marry Vanessa after Erika rejects him. Erika miscarries her child, Anatol and Vanessa are married and Erika follows her aunt’s example, vowing to live alone in the house for 20 years. And here you were thinking that 18th and 19th century operas had silly plots! This one’s all modern and psychological and silly as all get out. And then there’s the non-singing woodland spirit/nymph/what have you — apparently intended as Erika’s alter ego — invented by director Glynis Leyshon and danced by Treena Stubel. The less said about this the better.

The technical aspects of the show are up to POV’s usual high standards — Pam Johnson’s lovely set and period costumes are very effective at framing the action and setting the time and place — the falling snow outside the main stage area is a nice touch. And Gerald King’s lighting is effective and subtle.

But opera is mostly about the singing, and on opening night the leads’ voices were only intermittently up to the task. Mezzo soprano Stephanie Marshall’s rendition of Must the Winter Come so Soon was very good, baritone Andrew Greenwood had some wonderful solo moments as the Old Doctor, and tenor Adam Luther turned in some fine work. But soprano Wendy Nielsen, in her role and company debut as Vanessa, while fine in the recitative sections of the role, can regretfully only be described as screechy when singing full on. Her love duet with Luther, sounded to these ears like a parody of all the clichéd excesses of grand opera.

Barber wrote many beautiful vocal scores and some of the arias and set pieces in Vanessa are equal to his best work, but this cast couldn’t consistently do them justice. The climactic quintet, To Leave, To Break, which should be the absolute emotional and vocal highlight of the evening, got nothing more than a journeyman performance and hence fell seriously short of the composer’s intentions.

If I appear overly harsh here, I’m not alone in my assessment. This was the kind of show where the audience laughs at lines which are not supposed to be funny. The kind of show where the patrons run for the bar at half-time in far greater numbers than usual. The kind of opera where the orchestra gets more applause than the singers and the polite end-of-show ovation nearly dies before the single curtain call has ended. M