Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Villains, Oscar Wilde and the Colors of Life in Opera

By Erica Miner

Which witch, male or female? Tenor Peter Marsh, who makes his Seattle Opera debut as the villainous Hexe in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel next month, shared his insights on the subject and on diverse aspects of a singer’s life as he prepares for his role.

In a daring, new-to-Seattle production that pushes the envelope of traditional takes on the Grimm fairy tale and contemporizes the two siblings’ precarious situation, Marsh’s character is a metaphorical ecological anti-Christ who represents the resistance and challenges that present and future generations will face in trying to save the planet from the consequences of egregious consumerism and lack of regard for the wanton waste that the human race has perpetrated on the ecology of Mother Earth.

EM: Congratulations on making your Seattle Opera debut! 

PM: Thank you very much. I’m very excited to be singing here. I haven’t sung in the States for about 18 years now. It’s nice to be back. 

EM: Looking at your background I see that Oper Frankfurt has been a home base for you? 

PM: I’m a full time singer there and I do guesting outside of there as well. 

EM: I did see your YouTube videos where you were interviewed in German and I found your German extraordinary. You could have fooled me that you’re from Upstate New York. 

PM: Well, I can turn on a Tonawanda accent if you want me to [Laughs]. 

EM: What was your journey from your hometown of Fredonia, N.Y., to the opera stage? 

PM: I lived in the area until I was ten. Then my parents moved to Portland, Oregon. In high school I enjoyed theater, sang in choirs and had fun doing musicals. From there I thought, “Well, I really enjoy music and probably can’t have a career in it, so I’ll get a degree in teaching but I want to keep music going because I have fun with it.” I got my Bachelor of Science degree from Portland State University with an emphasis in teaching, but I never got my certification. That was the first time I’d sung in or heard an opera. I really enjoyed it, so from there I went for a Master’s at the University of Texas Austin and had a 2-year stint for the Austin Lyric Opera’s Young Artists Program. Then I went to Europe, got an agent there, was able to do an audition at Oper Frankfurt, got the job and I’ve been there ever since, singing in Germany and Asia. 

EM: Your CV shows quite a lot of German repertoire, in a number of German and Austrian opera houses. Do you think of that repertoire as your mainstay, or is there other repertoire that you have branched out into? 

PM: My voice, I think, suits the German style a bit more. I did Pinkerton once in Bremen, in Butterfly. I felt really comfortable with it and it went well, but when I listened to recordings of myself I thought, “The color’s not really Italian.” It wasn’t quite where I fit. Then I started singing more Strauss and some Wagner and I thought, “That’s a little more the color and direction I’m going.” I’ve done Britten a lot throughout the years. I feel like that’s always suited me well. I’ve been very fortunate that in Frankfurt and Germany I’ve been able to try a lot of different roles, from character and buffo to some leading roles as well. I like to do a combination of different things. 

EM: Is this your first time singing the Witch in Hansel and Gretel?

PM: I have sung it in a production in Frankfurt and I’ve done about 20 performances of it before. So I have a little experience with it. 

EM: It’s a really interesting role, and at the Met Opera we usually did it more with female than with male singers. Do you feel that it’s equally effective sung and played by a male or a female, or do you lean more toward it being better suited for a male voice and character? 

PM: It depends a lot on the production the color of the way the director or conductor wants it to go, but I think it’s equal. Originally it was written for a female. Later on the tradition came with the tenor doing it as well. There are pluses and minuses on both sides. Men tend to have a bit more variation of colors in voice or character but the woman’s quality can also be different. It’s really more of a taste thing, just what people prefer. 

EM: What are the differences you’ve observed in the role, both character wise and vocally, sung by male and female? 

PM: Everybody brings their own things to it and it’s always different. Some people will swear by a woman, some by a man. I prefer a man because I enjoy singing it, but I’ve seen it done very effectively with a woman. I try to do as many colors as I can in the role and try to bring certain sides to it. In the production I’ve done beforehand, the concept was that it was a woman and a man and switched back and forth. That one was a little different because the director actually asked for me to sing it, and he wanted me to do it a certain way. Another time I saw a production that was double cast, one a woman and one a man. It really depends on how a company wants to see it and how they do it. 

EM: Character wise, it must be a lot of fun. 

PM: Oh, I enjoy it immensely. It’s a combination of being silly and evil, every side of a person that you can be. I’ve always had fun doing roles that are a bit more on the evil side or bad side. In life we tend not to be those people - I find most people don’t want to be cannibals [Laughs] - so we try to be best foot forward all the time. But here’s somebody who’s completely evil in a fun way. I enjoy being the bad guy. 

EM: “Completely evil in a fun way.” That’s one to remember. Certainly the character is fun to watch. Let’s face it, for a really good plot you need a great villain. This one is definitely that. 

PM: It’s almost if you want to compare it to the James Bond movies. Sometimes we remember the villains - the character we love to hate - more than the Bonds. With the Witch you want a combination of loving and hating this person. Part of you says, “Oh, I’d like to do that, too,” but you wouldn’t really. I think that’s a goal you want to go for when you’re performing the Witch. 

EM: Like, “I wouldn’t mind seeing her feet peeking out from under a house that just fell on her.” 

PM: Exactly. 

EM: Have you started rehearsing yet? 

PM: We just started yesterday, so everything’s really new. 

EM: Which of your fellow Seattle cast members have you been working with so far? 

PM: We all met yesterday, and I had a musical rehearsal with my Hansel and my Gretel, Sarah Larsen and Anya Matanovic. They’re both great - a lot of fun, beautiful voices. I’m really looking forward to getting the chance to be on stage with them. 

EM: I’m looking forward to seeing you on stage with them. Let’s talk about some of your other German repertoire. I’ve noticed that you’ve sung the title role in Zemlinsky’s infrequently performed one-act opera, Der Zwerg. How did you come to that role, and what was it like to learn and to perform? 

PM: We were doing it in Oper Frankfurt and the Intendant asked me if I thought it would be a good role for me. I jumped at the opportunity. It’s a role I love. It has beauty, a tragic character - everything in it. I think it’s a masterpiece opera that should be done more. I enjoyed doing it so much because it was a part of looking at yourself as a character, how we look at ourselves in life, how we sometimes always look at and only cherish the good sides, and wish that if only other people would only see those good sides we could live our lives and go on and everything would be okay. If somebody shows us how we truly are, that can sometimes tear us apart if we haven’t done that introspection. The chance to do that role was wonderful. Luckily I’ve been able to do it two other times, in Bremen and Seville. It’s one of my favorite roles to sing, very challenging vocally and dramatically. I love doing that sort of thing on stage when you can combine all the aspects of the stage life. It’s one of the things I enjoy most. 

EM: How did audiences react to this grim story in those two very different cities? 

PM: I think audiences in Germany tend to see the style of music a lot more. In Frankfurt we perform around 20 productions a season. There are usually 11-12 premieres, and the others are revivals, modern music and others. Zemlinsky for the German audience is actually fairly normal because it’s colors and styles of Mahler, music they know. Also the story isn’t really that strange because a lot of people know it from the Oscar Wilde short story (The Birthday of the Infanta) on which it’s based. Other audiences might not be familiar with it, but this type of story is not new for audiences in Germany as I think it may be, for instance, in the States. In the productions I’ve done the audience has really enjoyed and reacted positively, in seeing this tragic figure played out. In some ways I find similarities with Pagliacci as far as the character goes. Pagliacci is probably a little meaner but he isn’t loved because of his appearance or other things and has been cast off by the person he loves for somebody else. So there’s similarity as far as that goes. 

EM: That’s a great parallel. As regards contemporary operas, there are a number of others in your repertoire: works by Bloch, Henze, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, many grim plot lines. Do you feel a special affinity for recent works? 

PM: It depends on the production, how it’s staged and the piece itself. At times I enjoy doing modern music because sometimes a character is a little deeper than say, Tamino, where you pick up a picture and say, “Oh my God, I’m in love, isn’t this wonderful,” and that’s about it. In modern works you can get into real people, try to play different characters and different sides. I enjoy that especially from the acting side. You don’t always get that with the traditional style of opera stories. For the most part it tends to be more of a 20th-21st century thing. Sometimes I’ve done modern pieces that I think at the end, “That piece doesn’t need to ever be done again.” But I enjoy the fact that a lot of places are trying to keep modern works alive, because you never know when you’ll have the next masterpiece. If we stop doing that it would really be tragic. 

EM: In my interview with Jake Heggie, he talked about how it’s not always easy to bring new operas to the stage but even more difficult to make sure they’re performed after the premiere. Jake felt that contemporary opera in America is experiencing a resurgence. Perhaps audiences in Germany might be a bit more open to contemporary works? 

PM: I think there’s a little more tradition there with contemporary works. Because a lot of theatres are state funded, they can take more chances with it - if it’s done well and you have very good leadership in companies that know how to balance out how much you can try and can risk. I can only imagine how difficult it must be, balancing the financial and artistic sides. It’s an incredible task. I’m just amazed by how people can do that, handle all different sides of it. I would have no clue [Laughs]. From what I’ve seen so far here in Seattle they do a very good job of it. I’ve really enjoyed my few days being here. 

EM: The excitement about opera in the city is amazing, and Seattle Opera does a wonderful job of outreach, not only with older audiences but for kids - they’re the future audience, after all. Hansel was one of my favorite operas when I played at the Met. It’s so affecting emotionally, and so much fun to play. Can you draw any parallels between the dwarf in Der Zwerg and the Witch in Hansel

PM: Musically you can always find parallels. What Humperdinck did with the score of Hansel und Gretel affected so much of the next generation of composers. Zemlinsky looked at that, as well as Richard Strauss and Mahler. Humperdinck used a lot of Wagner but you find a lot of other things that are almost quoted or the same ideas are used. Ariadne auf Naxos or later Strauss works, for example. Hansel was one of the most popular operas of the time. I’m sure Zemlinsky must have heard the music. The score must have affected how he did things. As far as the characters go, between Der Zwerg and the Hexe, I’m not sure how much is the same. You do use a completely different technique when you’re singing them. The Hexe is almost completely character style, where you’re going for different colors and it’s not necessarily just about the singing. How you sing it is important but it’s not the long lines, where in Der Zwerg it’s almost a young heldentenor style, where you have to keep the long lines pulling through and the colors in the voice - you really have to stay on the voice without doing silly sounds that might add to the witch’s character. But the characters are not the same. With Der Zwerg you’re really in your own world, dreaming of being in the other world, being like other people. The Witch is in her own world, but the only thing she wants from the rest of the world is a little food. 

EM: Or a lot of food. 

PM: And she’s more about having her own things, where the Zwerg is trying to be a part of something that he’s not. So in the styles of music you could see a lot of similarities between the two, but not in the characters. 

EM: Do you have a wish list for other roles in the future? 

PM: I would like to sing more Strauss repertoire, a Bacchus, the Emperor in Frau ohne Schatten. Maybe in another 10 years to do a Walther von Stolzing (Die Meistersinger). We’ll see how the voice develops, but that would be a lot of fun. 

EM: Let’s hope we’ll be able to see you in all of those. I’m certainly looking forward to your performance in Hansel and Gretel. Thank you so much, Peter, for your insights. 

PM: Thank you so much, Erica. 


Hansel and Gretel runs at Seattle Opera from Oct. 15 through 30 at McCaw Hall. More info here

Photos used courtesy of the artist and by permission of: Bill Cooper, Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ludovic Morlot: Musical Individuality and the Heart

By Erica Miner

A quiet revolution has taken place since Ludovic Morlot first raised his baton as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011. Over the past five seasons, he has championed the music of contemporary composers, with exceptional attention to French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013). Morlot’s Grammy award winning CD project to record Dutilleux’s most important symphonic works with Seattle, of which the third disc was released on Aug. 12 on the orchestra’s Seattle Symphony Media label, has raised awareness of this composer, who until now has been relatively little known in the United States. As a result, musicians and audiences alike have begun to develop a keen appreciation of Dutilleux’s esoteric composing style.

The Lyon-born Morlot, who originally trained as a violinist in his native country, followed his passion for conducting at London’s Royal Academy of Music with the legendary Sir Colin Davis and subsequently studied at the Pierre Monteux conducting school in the US. Audiences and critics have delighted in the energetic, richly colored performances of the young maestro, now in his sixth season helming Seattle’s much-loved orchestra. From Beethoven to Berio, Mahler to Messaien, Morlot has covered a wide spectrum of repertoire with élan, elegance and intensity. Symphony President and CEO Simon Woods has praised Morlot for creating a transformation on stage and pushing the boundaries of traditional orchestral programming.

I caught up with Morlot in advance of the orchestra’s September 17 season opening to gain some insight into Morlot the maestro.

EM: After training in London with Sir Colin Davis, you were the Seiji Ozawa Fellow at Tanglewood. Do you feel that that fellowship paved the way for you to become assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra? 

LM: Very much. Sir Colin was principal guest conductor with the BSO for many years, part of the BSO family. In 2001 immediately after I was Seiji’s Fellow at Tanglewood he invited me to Boston to cover for a few weeks. So I was fortunate to be around him and Colin Davis. This is where I forged my relationship with Bernard Haitink, who became a very strong mentor for me, and also where I first met James Levine. Being his assistant led to really becoming a BSO family member over the years. I could name other ones. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos was very much part of that family, Andre Previn, John Williams. It was a ten-year journey for me to become acquainted with, and really a protégé of all those people. Therefore it was almost a natural step to be invited to be officially assistant conductor of the BSO. But I must say Ozawa really opened the doors for me, for that relationship with the orchestra. That was still the time where you had live auditions for a conducting fellowship at Tanglewood. It was quite a stretch for me to come from London to audition for that. I frankly didn’t have much hope because I had no connection there. That audition is still very much present in my memory because I felt I was really treated as a musician as opposed to a candidate for a fellowship. I remember conducting Debussy and interacting with Maestro Ozawa at the level where he offered me a position as fellow, saying, “I will be privileged if you would consider coming and studying with me.” I was in my early 20s and suddenly I had this boost of confidence, which has been tremendously important for me to pursue that career, that life. I see those relationships as the ones that really made me believe that this could be something for me to do. Each one of those relationships have been in some way important to create that environment for me. 

EM: So those mentorships really gave you the path to jump into conducting. 

LM: Totally. It was also through those days and connections that I met Henri Dutilleux, for instance, whom I first met in Boston as we were working on the revision of The Shadows of Time.

EM: Not in Tanglewood but actually in Boston? 

LM: Yes, at Symphony Hall. The BSO for me is possibly my most beloved love affair in music. Everybody I know, from Yo-Yo Ma to John Williams, Bernard Haitink, soloists, living composers - everything’s been created there, the. It’s been a very important part of my life. 

EM: When did you first become committed to the cause of contemporary music? Did it start at Tanglewood with the Fromm Festival? 

LM: Way earlier. As a kid as a violinist way before I started having aspirations to conduct, I was always very curious and interested, not only in performing music I didn’t know, but I would go much beyond that. In Montreal, for instance, being a member of the contemporary music group. In London, actually commissioning with very little money from my friends in the composition department. So I was always very curious to be involved with creativity and the process, because I felt being part of the process I could learn something about finding my own voice. I was always very eager to embrace as many influences as possible. It’s true with my mentors in conducting too. Many of my colleagues would have one or two mentors and their time with those. For me it was bigger. The more I could embrace the influences I received, the more chances I gave myself to develop an individual voice. It worked for me because I became really interested in individuality in musicians. There’s only so much good you can do copying someone who’s already brilliant. It’s an easier path to actually create your own voice and being the best at it. That’s what I’ve been pursuing. 

EM: What have been some of your most significant contemporary music premieres that meant the most to you? 

LM: A performance that was very important to me was the New York premiere with the New York Philharmonic of a piece by Tristan Murail, a wonderful French composer who was at the time head of composition at Columbia University. I was stunned to know that Tristan had been in New York for ten years heading Columbia University composition department and his music had never been performed at Avery Fisher Hall. So I made a big case for his piece Gondwana, which dealt with the supercontinent. It’s spectral music, which in two rehearsals is very difficult to accomplish with sophistication. But I pushed for this music because I believed it was not only overdue but I wanted to give it a start in people’s vocabulary. In the same program I remember doing La Mer and a piece by Messiaen. That became meaningful because I had to be an ambassador for it, even more so because I had to convince the organization itself that it was an appropriate thing to do. After that performance the New York Philharmonic commissioned a piece from Murail. and he’s always been very grateful for this to have happened. I felt I created this meeting between this amazing orchestra and an amazing composer. When you can play this humble role of creating this, it’s very moving. 

EM: Tell us about your association with Elliot Carter. 

LM: We met through the Boston Symphony. My debut with the New York Philharmonic was conducting his music. He came on stage, he was present at the performance, so I’ve always been a great ambassador of his music. He wrote his piece Instances for me and the Seattle Symphony, which we premiered in my first season. For years I had been asking him to write something for me and the Seattle Symphony, knowing that I would be coming here. He said he had no time, and I could see he was 97, 98, 99. It would never happen. When he was 102, just the year before he passed, I received in the mail a score called Instances for Chamber Orchestra, with this beautiful dedication to me and the Seattle Symphony. It just came to me out of the blue. 

EM: Without warning?

LM: Completely. He’d remembered that I bugged him for so long and I guess when he knew I was starting here he had some acolytes working behind the scenes to remind him of this request. He must have sensed that I was not just saying this, I really wanted a piece of his that we could premiere here. I’ve stayed very close to his music since then. Those are moments that make you very proud in some ways, to have really wanted it so badly. I think for me those two premieres are very specific because of the journey around the process. And the process is as exciting as the performance itself. 

EM: That’s a very important way to express your own individuality. And Elliot Carter was a giant. 

LM: Sure. And I cannot leave that topic without mentioning Dutilleux, this five-year, three-CD project. There’s always one or two pieces you leave out. This little piece I discovered recently, Muss es Sein, which I will do at some point but I didn’t feel the urgency to include it in the project at this point. 

EM: Is it related to Beethoven’s Opus 135? 

LM: (Laughs) No, but I’m already looking at programming it along the road. I’m going to give Dutilleux a little break here in Seattle, and focus on different other voices. But when I come back to Dutilleux I’d like to include that little piece. I could program it with the Grosse Fuge, because I think it would be a wonderful counterpoint. 

EM: This is perhaps an unfair question, but among Dutilleux’s works that you’ve recorded, can you name any particular favorites? 

LM: They’re all very different. But I think I can highlight a few, and I’ll give you the reasons very clearly. As much as I’m fond of the symphonies, they’re not really the pieces Dutilleux was most proud of. He always told me in our conversations that sometimes he felt a little embarrassed at how much he borrowed in his symphonies, the early works, from the 50s. He always felt a little uneasy that you could recognize Prokofiev and Stravinsky (laughs). What I love in his music is how he developed an individual way of moving away from the symphony genre. He created this model of pieces like Métaboles and The Shadows of Time, a succession of movements without a narrative, because he was very interested in that part of the music expression, creating pieces that move from one mood to another, breaking away from symphonic tradition. It reminds me very much of what Debussy was trying to do. You think of Jeux, even Pélleas, La Mer. Yes, underneath is this idea of a three-movement symphony, but it’s already moving in a completely different direction. I’ve felt that Dutilleux’s symphonies came back to something a little too traditional, too 19th century. Debussy was much more of a narrative idea. Jeux describes the ballet element. I think Dutilleux was much more preoccupied with colors. The title of his piece for Slava (Rostropovich), actually defines what his music is all about - time, space and movement. This is maybe my favorite piece of his, because it has this complexity. I love the scoring as well, which is no violins, no violas. I’m a violinist like you are, so it’s a little frustrating not to be part of that, but what he accomplishes in this piece in terms of the tension and colors is beyond anything else he’s written. We also recorded Citations, for oboe, double bass, harpsichord and percussion, which I find tremendously difficult to embark on as a piece of music, but once I really started working on it I think it became one of my favorite Dutilleux pieces. Such an intimate and personal means of expression that I find very powerful. 

EM: Yet I find his symphonic works very powerful too. 

LM: Of course. The scherzo of the First Symphony is fantastic to perform and I love listening to it as well. 

EM: Tell us about Sonic Evolution. 

LM: Sonic Evolution is actually evolving. When I first came here we had this idea to make sure that everybody felt invited to experience live symphonic music, regardless of their musical taste. I think in the 80s and 90s, we’ve been guilty of creating this elitist environment for symphonic music. I’m always careful with using classical versus symphonic music. For me classical music has a much more specific connotation of the Enlightenment, that very short period in the 18th century that we call the classical era. I prefer to talk about symphonic music, because it doesn’t pigeonhole music in a box where people feel excluded because they don’t have the experience with or taste for it. I wanted to created a platform where we could embrace all kinds of music. We could say all music is created equal, regardless of individual musical tastes. Most important is to experience a live symphonic performance. As a young boy going to concerts, I don’t remember the music programmed but I remember the experience. I left the concert hall with a new passion. I wanted to recreate this for people who thought they had nothing to do with orchestra music. So we stretch it back to how music was presented two or three hundred years ago. Our subscription pattern programming would be 2% new music, and 98% music people have heard before. I wanted Sonic Evolution to invite new people in the hall, experiencing music as it was presented way back, which means the first half would be new works composed especially for the event - three world premieres, from three composers we asked to be influenced or inspired by some elements of the musical genres that one can experience in Seattle, not limited to classical influence. Grunge, hip-hop, jazz with Bill Frisell - the people who actually make music in Seattle. Recreating or capturing some of the essence of their sound, their political statements, in a piece for orchestra that’s not quoting their songs but something that embraces their whole characteristic. That was the first half. Then, as after you heard in 1805 Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphony for the first time, I decided the end of the concert would always be with a star artist - a great singer or pianist, like later in the century when Liszt would show up as the star of the day in music making. 

EM: Like a rock star today. 

LM: The ones people listen to on the bus with their earphones, like Macklemore and Taylor Swift. Why not create that second half where we invite those people to collaborate with us. We did Pearl Jam, Mad Season. We invited Sir Mix-A-Lot for hip-hop numbers. Even smaller garage bands from here that I believed in - The Laughing Dogs. When I came here I didn’t know any of those people. By doing this I felt we were sending this invitation to the community to experience symphonic music on a different level. I was also hoping, and it happened, that my musicians and I would also open our minds to what those collaborations could mean for us as musicians, performing artists. It’s been fascinating, because I’ve been invited to experience some of these artists’ concerts here. those people are stage animals, you know (Laughs). Performing artists in the right sense of the word. We can be influenced by this complete devotion, focus, love for that moment of creating for the audience, and the level of devotion to their storytelling. 

EM: Something the audience can identify with, exclusive to Seattle. 

LM: Here they can connect to it because they feel there’s an emotional power to what we’re trying to establish as a collaboration. When we commissioned Mike McCready from Pearl Jam to write an orchestra piece, that was a huge stretch for him and for us. He was out of his comfort zone. We had to perform with a drum set and a mike on the guitar and a young girl’s chorus. But people could sense that, and fall in love with the process again. When they do this they connect emotionally, and therefore they might want to come back to it. 

EM: They respond to it in a big way, as it represents our city. 

LM: Yes. In the last five years it was very much based about what we could bring into those collaborations with people in Seattle from different musical genres. This project has grown so much we are exploring something bigger that might resonate with artists outside of Seattle. We’ll see where that takes us. For sure it’s not about growing our audience for subscription base. It’s about creating a new audience, an early memory in their lives. Maybe we’ll allow them 20, 30 years along the road, to say, “Oh, I remember that day I went to the symphony and something happened in my heart. I might give it a try again.” That’s maybe how we can get people to listen to Mozart and Beethoven at the end of the day.

Next, Part 2: Opera vs. Symphony,  Losing Sleep Over Programming, and Conductors: the Next Generation 

Photos used with permission of: Lisa Marie Mazzucco, Brandon Patoc 
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Friday, August 12, 2016

Barber's Noirish Vanessa Triumphs in Santa Fe Premiere

Anatol (Zach Borichevsky) enters Vanessa's door
Review by Rodney Punt

Samuel Barber’s first opera, Vanessa, began life promisingly in 1958, debuting to rave reviews at the Metropolitan Opera. Some critics regarded it the greatest American opera to date and it soon earned a Pulitzer Prize. But a poor subsequent reception at the Salzburg Festival prompted Barber’s revision, after which changing musical tastes and the culture wars of ensuing decades left it neglected. 

If one knows only the Barber of his exquisite Adagio or nostalgic Knoxville, Summer of 1915, the muscular score and bracing theatricality of Vanessa will come as both a surprise and a revelation. The Santa Fe Opera’s General Director, Charles Mackay, accounts it an “unquestioned masterpiece of the mid-twentieth century" and this reviewer agrees. On July 30, in the sixtieth anniversary year of the company (a span of time equivalent to the life of this work), Mackay gave Vanessa its company premiere. It was worth the long wait.

Anatol (Borichevsky) and Vanessa (Wall)
The setting is an unspecified "Northern" country with the period feel of an Ingmar Bergman film or Hollywood melodrama of the 1940's. Its noirish libretto was penned by Barber's life partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, and teems with a psychological verisimilitude influenced by their own long and complicated relationship. Quasi-Freudian undercurrents involve trade-offs between an individual's unshakable ideals and the world's compromised realities. 

The action opens with a still beautiful Vanessa anticipating the return of her lover Anatol after a two decade absence. Awaiting his return, she has lived in a kind of suspended animation, with the mirrors covered to stop time. When Anatol's son, also named Anatol, arrives, he announces that his father died long ago

Soon enough Anatol's wandering eye and caddish behavior set off a crisis in the household, as both Vanessa and her niece Erika fall for him. The latter’s brief affair ends badly, but a smitten Vanessa abandons her isolation to pursue life with the much younger man in Paris. A disillusioned Erika takes on Vanessa’s previous hermetic posture, ordering the mirrors to be covered again. Observers of the goings-on include the silent Baroness (Vanessa's mother and Erika's grandmother) and a tipsy, kind-hearted Doctor, who reveal their own poignant perspectives on life and love.

The Doctor (Morris) and Vanessa (Wall)
Under James Robinson’s direction, Allen Moyer sets the scene in a claustrophobic, time-stopped home of monochrome whites and grays. In later celebratory scenes, with friends, family, and lovers, the set expands in a flood of light and pastel costume colors. The mirrors uncover briefly, only to shutter again as Erika takes on the hermetic role from a departing Vanessa. 

Vanessa's emotional state moves from eerie waiting to eerie giddiness, a mental detachment from common sense that could limit audience empathy. Fortunately, Soprano Erin Wall finely gauged her role's journey and portrayed it with dignified conviction, never overplaying or making character into campy caricature. From her early "Do not utter a word, Anatol" she established just the right tone for the psychological safety-zone in which she dwells.

Erika (Virginie Verrez)
The role of Erika traverses a wider arc, from supportive niece to a predator's victim, later from failed interventionist to a dweller in her own twilight. One is reminded of the relationship of Mrs Havisham and Estella in Dickens' Great Expectations. (No wonder Maria Callas refused to create the role of Vanessa when she saw the arc of Erika's character.) 

In her first act ariamezzo soprano Virginie Verrez established Erika's vulnerability in the wistful "Must the winter come so soon?", followed immediately by the sharp expressionistic thrills of "Listen ...They are here" as Anatol arrives at the door. Sweet-voiced but strong-willed, Verrez made the most of her journey of many moods in the evening's stand-out performance.

Tenor Zach Borichevsky's Anatol was a proper cad, but not so much an evil one as an unsympathetic victim of behavioral fate to exploit female vulnerability. Bass-baritone James Morris, luxury casting as the Doctor, made the most of his role as the personification of empathetic wisdom when sober and old fool when drunk. Mezzo-soprano Helene Schniederman was an anchor of muzzled propriety as the Baroness who sees and knows all but utters nary a word. Bass-baritones Andrew Bogard and Andrew Simpson were, respectively, the Major-Domo and the Footman.

Conductor Leonard Slatkin’s precision-primed orchestra announced the arrival of a great work at the instant of its downbeat. Bracing brass and whistling woodwinds set an icy mood as the drama unfolds. In the revised three-act version mounted here, Vanessa's inspiration and dramatic tension never flounder.

The complex expressionistic score is an extension of the kind of advanced writing in Richard Strauss's Elektra and Hollywood's psychological thrillers. Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo is the exemplar. Yet the sound-world in Barber's Vanessa  is unique, an object lesson in the integration of melody, harmony, orchestral color, and the kind of vocal writing that is a lost art in many works today. One marvels at the craftsmanship. 

Though it was composed in the middle of the last century, there are those still living who remember Vanessa's 1958 premiere. For the rest, hearing it with fresh ears today, one need no longer be concerned with the stylistic vogues that had consigned the work too soon to its decades-long obscurity. Indeed, since Vanessa's composition, several musical styles have come and gone.   The once dominant atonal school in America’s universities eventually passed into its own historical niche. Minimalism was born and, under composers like John Adams, matured into a more eclectic idiom. The Neo-Romantic style of a David Del Tredici made what had become old new again. In fact, today’s eclecticism provides aural space for audiences to listen for quality more than style.  

Samuel Barber made of Vanessa a masterpiece beyond style.

Erika (Verrez) and Governess (Schneidermann)

SFO company premiere. Performance reviewed: July 30, 2016. 

Photos by Ken Howard