Tuesday, November 20, 2007

;_; ;_;

Beyond a fondness for fortified Estonian vanilla liqueur, the Straussmonster and I have a good many things in common. One of these is that we turn into profoundly emo walrii (see subject line for illustration) when folks hate on the libretto Giancarlo Menotti wrote for Samuel Barber's Vanessa. Bemoaning this fact this evening, between big, walrusy tears, we came upon one review that started out by defending the opera itself, only to join in slagging on the book. "Vanessa," the review went on, "is about Vanessa." Well yes, and many other things besides. It's a funny review, with a madcap reference to "Three's Company," but as I said to the Straussmonster, said I, "'x is about y' is almost never an interesting or meaningful sentence unless Y is a pretty long and detailed clause." I meant it, too.

Not to keep you in suspense, here is what your monster and your Maury think Vanessa is about: Vanessa is about (obviously) regret and self-deception, about the disasters inherent to family, the disasters inherent to patriarchy if you'll pardon the undergraduate-level gender politics in summary, the horror of aging, the narcissism inherent to love, and about the importance of never serving ecrevisses a la bordelaise and langoustines grillees sauce aux huitres on the same menu. Vanessa is about the lies that we all tell ourselves, the unknowability of another human being, and the need to get along to go along. Vanessa, finally, and we feel a number of reviews we have read miss this point most of all, is about the failure of the human character to provide satisfying resolutions a good deal of the time.

La Monstre has also not unreasonably noted the misogyny that underlies certain opera queen readings of Vanessa, ones that do give us pause as we look past the trees to the forest and think about opera queen discourse in general. (And if you care to look further than that, there's lookin' to be done.) We hope, as we sit here in our cozy fit of not quite pique, that no-one will take this as a personally pointed finger, unless of course they should.

6 comments:

Robert Gordon said...

What I think Vanessa is about is, it's yet another version of that archetype of '50s gay theater The Spinster and the Stud (see many works of T. Williams and W. Inge, or for that matter The Old Maid and the Thief.) This is the version where Blanche runs off with Stanley, leaving Stella to go mad at Belle Reve.

The whole project is intensely though covertly gay (the vaguely aristocratic neverland is also a gay archetype: see Henze-Auden-Kalman's Elegy for Young Lovers for another operatic example). Both the gayness and the covertness have given some people the creeps -- for different reasons now than when it was new, I think, but still...

Anyway, discussions of Vanessa tend to have a correspondingly covert element, you know, not about what they're about. I'm still waiting to read an analysis that really nails it, hopefully by someone with a firm grip on what the elusive Gay Sensibility is (too bad Vito Russo wasn't an opera critic).

Maury D'annato said...

Hi Robert, and thanks for your thoughtful commentary. I have to say, for me the gay sensibility is to some extent a blind alley, a circular thing: X has a gay sensibility because I like it and I'm gay is often the argument. In the case of Vanessa I think it's also reductionist, limits what we think about the work in a way that doesn't do it justice. I can maybe see the Streetcar thing but again, if Tennessee Williams were only of interest for his oblique commentary on teh ghey, well, I'd think less than I do of his truly immortal work. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for instance is about...actually I haven't read it in forever, but I'd say it's about deceit beyond just what's inherent to the closet for instance the dishonesty demanded by many family structures, some socioeconomic stuff about the south I'd have to reread it to be more specific about, expectations of femininity...

JSU said...

"about the failure of the human character to provide satisfying resolutions a good deal of the time"

Not to earn myself a personally pointed finger (well, fine, point away), but this seems awfully close to explaining away a thing's suckiness by claiming it's about suckiness...

Maury D'annato said...

Unless you're from the 19th Century, I'd have to call that a willful misreading.

Chalkenteros said...

Part of Vanessa's (closeted) gay sensibility, as I see it, can be located in the current of unspeakable sexual desire (here operating under the sign of incest) that pervades the opera. The two female leads both indulge their primal, natural desires and both also try to maintain the facade of social idealism that they think they are supposed to represent.

Ask Mark about "unspeakability" -- he's the expert.

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