Vanessa, which has music by Samuel Barber and a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958. Barber won that year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music. After that many opera companies staged it, but lately the opera has begun to slip out of sight. Santa Fe Opera decided not to let that happen and, according to the size of the audience on Monday, it was quite right. Vanessa signaled the beginning of a new and popular style of opera that combines thoughtful text writing with melodic music.

Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Erin Wall (Vanessa) © Ken Howard
Zach Borichevsky (Anatol) and Erin Wall (Vanessa)
© Ken Howard
While Menotti spoke of being inspired by Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, director James Robinson said he invoked the atmosphere found in the psychologically turbulent early films of Ingmar Bergman. The culture was controlling and allowed for few exceptions. Snowstorms raged outside while overwhelming emotions ravaged the mansion’s snow-globe loving inhabitants.

Allen Moyer’s memorable sets portrayed the cold climate indoors in shades of gray and silver around an ornate fireplace. A huge round glass panel with cracks radiating from the center reflected the state of family unity. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind reinforced the contrasts tastefully and imaginatively. James Schuette’s costumes set the time at the beginning of the 20th century. His menswear was understated in the manner decreed by “old money”. He underlined the wealth of the family with finely detailed gowns and a multiplicity of furs for the women. Vanessa wore black velvet trimmed with jet but Erika’s wardrobe included lighter colors, even bridal white.

When the opera opens, Vanessa has been waiting for a visit from Anatol for twenty years. She lives with her mother, the Baroness, and her niece, Erika. The Baroness is not speaking to Vanessa. Anatol comes, but it is not the man Vanessa expects. The man who appears is the original Anatol’s son (also called Anatol). He is naturally attracted to Erika and he sleeps with her, but he marries the older Vanessa, leaving Erika to spend her days alone with the Baroness. We have no way of knowing if Vanessa and Anatol will be happy together, but it is obvious that Erika embraces a future in the hostile environment of the mansion.

Santa Fe Opera Chorus in <i>Vanessa</i> © Ken Howard
Santa Fe Opera Chorus in Vanessa
© Ken Howard

Menotti and Barber wrote the role of Vanessa with Maria Callas in mind, but instead it was the mature but voluptuous, blue-eyed blonde Eleanor Steber who showed the audience that Vanessa could still attract a suitor. Equally attractive, Erin Wall gave the Santa Fe audience a thoughtful, provocative portrayal of the role. Wall has a wide range of vocal color and she used it to add emotional impact to her music. Her aria “Do not utter a word, Anatol” secured her position as the diva of the evening. The role of Erika is somewhat subordinate to that of Vanessa, but Callas thought another soprano in the same opera might compete for importance. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council 2015 Auditions, Virginie Verrez portrayed Erika as a young girl who longed for an ideal and could not be satisfied with anything less. Although she sang “Must the winter come so soon” with exquisite sweet tones, Verrez does not yet have the dramatic vocal colors to make her rendition of the entire role distinctive.

Virginie Verrez (Erika) © Ken Howard
Virginie Verrez (Erika)
© Ken Howard

Zach Borichevsky was a tall, slim Anatol who seemed more interested in money than love. Since Anatol has no aria, he never got to tell his side of the story. However, Borichevsky sang with conviction and created an interesting character. With only a shadow of his once voluminous, robust voice left, James Morris created a most memorable character with his portrayal of the doctor. When he was serious, he tore at your heartstrings and when he was just slightly tipsy, he gave this opera a much-needed moment of light comic relief. I hope he will continue to grace the opera stage for seasons to come. Helene Schneiderman was a stiff, rather contemptuous Baroness who sang her few lines with dramatic emphasis.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin gave the Santa Fe audience a rapturous reading of Barber’s score and the orchestra played with the full measure of its virtuosity. None of Barber’s music is derivative, but there are places in which he quotes composers such as Richard Strauss. It was fun to locate them for later discussion. I even found tiny quotation from Die Frau ohne Schatten. Vanessa is not often seen these days, so I would advise opera lovers to catch a performance whenever they can.