News Item: somebody kidnapped that ragtag band of fiddlers that is sometimes indoors long enough to accompany operas at the Little Opera that Occasionally Could and replaced them with a top notch ensemble of musicians.
Alternate theory: all they ever needed at City Opera was (the music, and the mirror...wrong song) a conductor with a little vision because obviously this is New York and if they weren't terrific musicians they wouldn't be down in that there pit, now would they? Anne Manson is pretty clearly the hero of the day, leading NYCO's roundly excellent new production of--at long last--Barber's Vanessa with as sure a feel for the unapologetic romanticism of the work as for its jaggedy edges. If this were the sole virtue of the thing, I'd still kind of be glad to have gone and end this by urging you to go, too, which you know by now is what I'm gonna do.
Yes, we had a moment of panic when it looked like someone might not have gotten the memo, written in 1979, that the scrim craze was over, but it went away quick as you please, revealing an essentially conservative but not unimaginative production of this work, not staged in New York so far as I can tell in the last forty years. Truly, I can't for the life of me figure out why this is so, by the way. It's not drastically, Trovatorically hard to cast. The Met could do it right now, like literally tomorrow though I guess it'd be with piano and maybe sets by Ikea, with Voigt, DiDonato, and Polenzani.*/2 (Not that I think the casting would play out quite that way if they did put it on, but hey, welcome to the opera house in my head.) It's also a reasonable bet as a house-filer: profoundly accessible without ever flirting with banality. Melodrama, yes. Banality, no. Who wouldn't want to hear that?
I've long thought of Vanessa as a Douglas Sirk film with music, actually, but better.* It has more dimensions without being needlessly more subtle or less sentimental. Which is, upon several seconds of reflection, an impression I formed on the basis of the original cast recording, and the broadcast, and the Salzburg Festival air check with everyone the same except I think Ira Malaniuk as the old biddy. Hi, have I mentioned I'm obsessed with Vanessa?
Today's cast actually took a slower-burning approach, I think, starting with Katharine Goeldner, our Erika. Now, Erika's best known music, and that of the whole opera, is of course "Must the winter come so soon?" On the old recordings, Erika is already burning at both ends in this whisp of an aria, but I'm pretty sure Goeldner make a conscious departure, and I think it's totally valid. Remember that in the first act, Vanessa asks her niece to read to her, and after she has complied with a strophe or two of Oedipus**. The next part never made sense with Rosalind Elias: Steber/Vanessa chews her out for her boring reading. And you're sitting there going, "wait, that was totally not boring. Who died and made you Pauline Kael?"
So I think there was a deliberate blankness (I hope, or else I'm going to sound really backhanded) to Goeldner's reading of Erika in the first quarter of the opera. It's like Enzo Bordello says: if Lucia starts out crazy from the word "ancor," there's nowhere left to go. In the similarly heightened emotional clime of the unspecified, weirdly intense Scandinavian country wherein takes place Vanessa, it's good to leave some room, and Goeldner did indeed give her character an arc of development. "Must the winter," was very pretty and not a character manifesto. Anatol, thus it seems, opened her horizons. Unfortunately not in the good way. In act I, an emotionally frigid girl; in Act II, a somewhat grown up neurotic mess. Again with the possible unintentional backhandedness, one thing I loved about her portrayal was that Erika was never particularly likable. By the same token, she was never completely pitiable, a choice that may sit well with those uncomfortable with opera's endless profusion of feminine victims.
Now on to her sister. The transitions department in my brain closed early this evening. It is, in fact, staffed by French brain cells, and they are on strike.
Lauren Flanigan is at an interesting place in her vocal lifespan. It can only have had something to do with her casting that they chose the revised version of the big V, senza skating aria. Fond as my memories are of Flanigan skating, nay, roller blading in the 90's mounting of Intermezzo***, the skating aria probably would have been thin ice under the weight of her mature instrument, a pliant but rather drab thing that for all its essential lack of character allows her to create, as always, characterizations straight from the gut. Some voices are like blank canvasses, and when we're lucky, they're allotted to people who see gesso and think of paint.
Ms. Flanigan made her entrance in, well, did you ever drive through Williamsburg on a Saturday when all the Bukharian Jews are wandering back from presumably shul with the hats that look like a spare tire made of cheapish fur? (The last part of the mink, my grandfather would have said, to go over the fence.) Swear to god, she was wearing one of those. It gave us a delightful moment of imagining a Vanessa where everyone's Jewish. Vanesseleh. Potage aux matzoh balls? Potage aux matzoh balls. Reubens maybe? Feh, too many sauces. He just got here--you want he should plotz? Except then the entire opera would be them planning the menu, and you'd have to somehow squeeze the rest into a tiny epilogue.
That (alas for you) said, Flanigan delivered. It didn't sound easy, but it also didn't sound like a walk on the tightrope. Which is, probably, to say: she too is much unlike her predecessor. Steber's Vanessa is a triumph of Stimm, though she doesn't skimp on the Kunst either. Note how she's able to make, unless I'm imagining it, a subtle difference of tone on the protracted "ay" in "this very day" in her big scena after the music around it resolves. Flanigan didn't lay on that kind of vocal filigree; her Vanessa was a little older and wiser and tougher, underneath the mannerisms of the time, as imagined, more bent on getting what she wanted maybe. She sounded haunted, though, and desperate, and pounded on the window when they men who had gone to find Erika were dragging her back to the house, and it was a fully realized character. In the last act, before the devastating quintet, her carriage was younger, her choice of hats, much more flattering.
The young and the old fared well here: Ryan MacPherson overcame his terrible stage moustache to sing a crystal clear Anatol, diction to make Gedda proud really. Perhaps he lacked a little swagger that makes Anatol, Jr. seductive to the audience instead of just poor, sheltered Erika who honestly if you think about it would have jumped on anything in pants that walked through the door. He found the character's nihilism more easily than his charm. The voice is meanwhile easily produced and substantial. On the other end of the range, veteran Richard Stillwell must have been doing something right since his house debut in 1970. He has plenty of voice left for the wistfully comic little monologue of the doctor right up through that very long G, and if his acting was on the frenetic side, it was none the less assured. Pro stuff.
The real veteran, though, is Rosalind Elias, the creatrix of Erika in 1958. It doesn't take long with the abacus to figure out that she's flirting with 80. It is an honor to have her in the role, though if I'm going to be 100% honest (which isn't usually worth doing) it's an honor and a compromise. Something about Vanessa gets me obsessed with everyone's age, and I find myself noting that Regina Resnik would have been about 35 when she created the Old Countess. You come to think of it as a sort of cameo because her character is defined by her silence, but the fact is there are some real vocal demands in the beginning of the second act, and of course she's an equal partner in the quintet. Still, she brought great conviction to the role and many would be thankful to have that much left at her age. Anyway the opera is so suffused with nostalgia, nobody could really argue with the choice. And once in a while you heard a flash of Erika's archetypal voice, and that was terribly poignant.
Most generally what I'm trying to say is: go. Please. For you, because dollars to donuts you'll like it, and for me and the rest of us who wish City Opera would do this instead of a good deal of the things they do instead. I'm going again next week, and then, if I may drop (I promise) my last hint to the universe, again when they put it on a hundred yards northwest.
*/2 right, not literally tomorrow, unless it was on-book. These young opera singers, showing up to imaginary productions in my head not knowing the score. What do they teach you in imaginary school today?
*nuh-huh, I've only ever seen one Douglas Sirk movie, but you get the drift pretty quickly and it's a handy reference.
**um, why'd the audience crack up when she said what she was going to read? my new favorite line from Vanessa is "I hate your laughter!" No joke: they also laughed when the Doctor, in the last act, sang the line, " have always known I am a bad doctor. Now I know I am a bad poet as well, for I have never learned to read the human heart." Fine, it's a little bit campy, but who ARE you people? As long as I'm on this, did I ever mention the time I went to see Glenngarry Glen Ross, and Alan Alda was in the cast, so le tout New Jersey assumed it was a sitcom and laughed at the whole thing? GLENNGARRY GLEN ROSS IS NOT A COMEDY. NEITHER IS VANESSA. kthanxbye.
***I'm pretty sure I suggested at the time that if Tobias Picker felt like writing a biographical opera about Wayne Gretzky, they'd know who to call. Thus concludes this year's sports reference.
Oh, footnote. Just to fight the trend of so many irritating reviews and program notes, so often, I'd like to mention for the record that Menotti and Barber, just in case you didn't know, were, without further euphemism, doing it. I'm sure it was much more beautiful and loving than that, but just to be on the safe side and not leave anyone with the possible impression they were housemates, yeah, I don't know the details, but there was definite intercourse going on there.