Sunday, November 11, 2007

The hothouse

There is little of the north in Samuel Barber's Vanessa: none, perhaps, but the arid heat of a stuffy over-fired winter drawing-room. The bracing northern chill is mentioned but never breaks into the characters' universal fever pitch of feeling, neither as contrasting mood nor clarifying space between. There is even less of Isak Dinesen therein: her unflappable God/storyteller's-eye objectivity -- in which all of her characters, however miserable, seem quite pleased to be caught -- whether born of Denmark or the clear Kenyan air, is nowhere to be found. (Despite the explicit credit, I think Barber and Menotti are, in spirit, even less true to her Gothic Tales than her ape Peter H√łeg, who's been rewriting them as tales of political correctness. She left early from the only performance of Vanessa she attended.)

A better frame for the Americans' concoction may be the staging Menotti did at Spoleto, where the piece was sung in Italian and set in an upstate NY house not unlike their own. Emotionally, melodically forward and as a whole short on rhythmic contrast and impulse, Barber's opera sounds like a late transplant of verisimo despite its less naturalistic setting. The libretto's theme -- noncommunication -- is a near opposite thing, but the relentlessness of story advancement makes theme's felt effect substantially less. There is no room left, neither in surface nor sense, for the fruitful contrasts of, say, Pelleas. (From which we learn, to no surprise, that Menotti was no Maeterlinck...)

In other words, qualities that make the piece work so well in excerpt also make unrelieved hours of it rather hard to take -- at least for me. Your milage may vary.

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The cast sang well enough Thursday, but it was no accident that the night's biggest hand went to baritone Richard Stilwell. Only he, in the supporting part of the Doctor, bestowed on his character the divine spark of spirit that Menotti could not.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.