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Erin Wall (Vanessa) and James Morris (The Doctor) in <em>Vanessa</em>(c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
09 Aug 2016

Coolly Elegant Vanessa in the Desert

Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.

Coolly Elegant Vanessa in the Desert

A review by James Sohre

Above: Erin Wall (Vanessa) and James Morris (The Doctor) in Vanessa

Photo credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016


It is a luxury to see such an exhilarating new staging of this worthy opera, which seems to be finding its way back into favor after some years of unjustified neglect. Mr. Barber writes wonderfully for the voice, and here he crafts a treasure trove of haunting melodies that fall easily on the ear.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin seemed to revel in every bit of nuance in this splendid Neo-Romantic score, from the entrancing harmonies to the soaring melodies to the crackling through-composed dialogue that erupted into pungent arias. The eloquent orchestra responded with a generous outpouring of musical excellence underpinned by dramatic intent. Maestro Slatkin partnered his exceptional cast with unerring unity of purpose, and constantly shifting emotions were accommodated with consummate artistry, nowhere more so than in that shattering final quintet.

That cherishable artist Erin Wall shows once again that she ‘has it all’ as evidenced by her comprehensive, richly detailed, impeccable performance as Vanessa. Ms. Wall regales us with a creamy, warm, vibrant tone that is evenly produced in all registers and volumes. She is totally believable in her early reserve, which gives way, nay “explodes” into a pungent, tormented, mesmerizing characterization. Elegant to look at, ravishing to hear, impossible to look away from, Ms. Wall is a true star presence.

As her inexplicably devoted niece Erika, young Virginie Verrez impresses with a marvelous, refined mezzo that has individuality and polish. Her sound is voluminous, appealing, and displays a fine, even presence, especially in the score’s most famous melody, Must the Winter Come So Soon. Moreover she is slender and lithe, and moves well on stage. As accomplished her refined vocalizing is, I must say I missed Erika’s soul. Anguished cries that should suggest aching spiritual pain, were instead technically secure and intellectually apt. Erika should steal our hearts and run off with the show. I feel certain the gifted Ms. Verrez could come to do this as she discovers the part’s beating heart.

3. Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) in 'Vanessa' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016 (1).pngZach Borichevsky (Anatol). Photo Credit: Ken Howard.

Rising tenor Zach Borichevsky has abundant appeal as the feckless Anatol. There is a devious sweetness about him that perfectly informs the opportunistic young man. That he also finds a crumb of honest feeling to throw to Erika makes him, if not honorable, at least two-dimensional. His singing has many moments of real beauty, and he is very persuasive encompassing honeyed sustained phrases. The exposed expansive upper stretches are more challenging and sometimes lie ‘just’ shy of the pitch, although Mr. Borichevsky serves them well enough with a subtly manufactured squillo that does the job without doing any harm. This role was written for Gedda after all, asking for a combination of suave insinuation and spinto power. Mr. Borichevsky is already making a good case for the part. Now it will be a pleasure to watch him grow.

It was a treat to see the much admired Helene Schneiderman whose inscrutable mezzo and seasoned dramatic presence made the most of every moment as the irascible Old Baroness. In her self-imposed silence, she even managed to suggest a begrudging (bemused?) attachment to Vanessa and Erika.

15. Helene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) in 'Vanessa' (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016.pngHelene Schneiderman (Old Baroness) in Vanessa. Photo Credit: Ken Howard.

It was worth the price of admission just to see venerable bass-baritone James Morris in a star turn as the dotty Doctor. Mr. Morris is not only a valued asset in this production but also to the recent history of opera performance in general. What a generous, imaginative, gifted, engaging performer he is. It would be foolish to pretend that he is the fresh-voiced basso cantante of yore, or the potent Wagnerian of ‘mid-yore,’ and he doesn’t try to. Happily, he still has the all the charisma and assured technique to craft an unforgettable impression that is the talk of the festival. One of the week’s best moments was his: after he tenaciously clung and clung and clung to a loud extended high note, the delighted audience burst into spontaneous applause! Keep at it, Jim!

Allen Moyer’ handsome, white, film noir set designs (no that is not a contradiction) proved the perfect environment to underscore the aloof, wintery milieu. The imposing white drawing room features a curtained wall up center, which breaks away as it recedes upstage, curtain now drawn to reveal a huge cracked mirror, just as the false Anatol arrives. This powerful imagery at once underscored Vanessa’s fear of aging and the depleting properties of the passage of time, all the while reflecting (sorry!) her shattered dreams and illusions.

The openness of the dining table stage left (the congenial face of the family in public), is ingeniously offset by the cramped, skewed placement of two easy chairs far down right (the uneasy reality of the family in private). Indeed, at curtain rise Vanessa is in profile, her back somewhat to us, facing a stoic Old Baroness, both of them deliberately puffing on cigarettes.

The addition of a grand expressionistic staircase and chandelier up center dominated the visual as the space widened, just the characters’ life views opened up decisively. Erika’s march down those stairs to her attempted suicide was a potent effect. Erika’s bedroom was simply set down left when needed, with all of the subtle movement of set pieces neatly accomplished by costumed servants.

Spatial relationships were somewhat fluid, sometimes alienating, and most always effectively suggested. One puzzle: Once the large double doors were established as the main entrance with Anatol’s arrival, they were never so used again. Church- and partygoers exited up left, Erika ran out to escape her plight down right, Anatol entered carrying the lifeless girl from down left. Not good. Not bad. Just “curious.”

Finally, the presence of a tiered end table bearing snow globes from destinations that these reclusive inhabitants dream of visiting, was nothing short of a brilliant metaphor.

Costumer James Schuette has devised a doozy of a collection: elegant, posh, formalwear in a wide palette of neutral colors for many of the show’s official events: hosted dinners, engagement parties, church going, and leave taking. He has varied the look with attractive casual attire for day trips, skating parties and the like. Most important, Vanessa looked like the fashion plate she should be.

5. Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016.png Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Virginie Verrez (Erika). Photo Credit: Ken Howard.

Christopher Akerlind contributed his usual top drawer lighting design. There was excellent use of stark white, shadowy cross lighting, and brooding washes. Since the set was white it took to subtle changes beautifully, and Mr. Schuette employed well-judged hints of color.

I happen to have been seated next to an Ibsen scholar, and what an apt parallel he drew to that style. Of course! The reserved formality of the period, the churning internalized dramatics of the drawing room, the talking past each other rather than to each other, it is all there, and director James Robinson craftily knit these elements into a most satisfying presentation.

Mr. Robinson drew detailed, multi-layered performances from his cast, and he showed an unerring eye for meaningful stage pictures. He kept many pieces of inventive stage business in play simultaneously while always skillfully keeping our focus on the main action. He and his team also crafted a unified plan to build the arc of the drama and then bring it full circle.

After Vanessa and Anatol leave for a brighter future, Erika packs up the snow globes and sends them after the couple. The set withdraws back to its original look. The mirrors are again covered. Erika sits in Vanessa’s easy chair facing a mute Baroness. They smoke as they face off. At the ending, we are back to a new beginning.

With Santa Fe’s illuminating production of Vanessa, we were privileged to participate in a cathartic journey, a perfectly realized evening of lyric theatre in which nothing, and everything, has changed.

James Sohre

Cast and production details:

Erika: Virginie Verrez; Major-Domo: Andrew Bogard; Vanessa: Erin Wall; Anatol: Zach Borichevsky; Baroness: Helene Schneiderman; Doctor: James Morris; Footman: Andrew Simpson; Conductor: Leonard Slatkin; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Choreography: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston

3rd August 2016.

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