Sunday, April 17, 2005

OPERA REVIEW: San Diego Opera performs Samuel Barber's "Vanessa"

It's Saturday night, the final dischordant curtain falls, Mary and I turn to each other, we signal with a quick head-bob toward the aisle, and head straight for the exits as a soft trickle of applause follows us the Civic Theatre doors. It is the San Diego Opera and their performance of Samuel Barber's 1958 American opera, "Vanessa."

PHOTO CREDIT: John Gibbins, San Diego Union-Tribune / Get those two off that stage, quick! Soprano Carol Vaness (as Vanessa) and tenor John McVeigh (as Anatol) sing to their hearts' content, and our gentle ears' malcontent.

Nothing against American opera, and nothing against modern opera for that matter, but this was quite honestly a stinker. The uncomfortably weird (for lack of a better adjective) score seemed pulled out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The lead actress playing the opera's namesake, world renown Carol Vaness, was shrill and piercing, especially in her warbly upper register. John McVeigh as Anatol was both small in stature and vocal prowess, seeming to become enveloped whenever singing alongside either Vaness or Margaret Lattimore, who actually played a brilliant Erika. The problem with this opera was threefold.

1) The Story - pretty lame, even to opera standards. Act 2's cliffhanger ending gave us hope for an interesting finale. We've got a secretly pregnant Erika running into the snowy northern woods because she can no longer stand that the father of the child is marrying her aunt. The engagement party goes running after her in a mad panic, Vanessa with them. There's a shriek, then the curtain falls. I'm ready for the intermission to end in hopes that the story can redeem our 2 hour 45 minute evening. Instead of redemption, we've got Vanessa, her mom, and a doctor friend of the family sitting around in Erika's upstairs bedroom waiting to hear back from the search party. Nice way to completely stop the momentum.

2) The Music - awful. Barber didn't give his singers a decent aria all night. Maybe it was Vaness' shrieking or McVeigh's littleness. Or maybe it was just the fact that the second a character seemed to start up something good, another character would break in and once again kill the momentum.

3) The Performance - While Lattimore did a fine job as did Richard Stillwell as the doctor, they couldn't overcome the lead's vocal antics, the lame story, and awful music. The sets were wonderfully designed by San Diego Opera's own Michael Yeargan.

Ah well. I always try to keep an open mind with the modern operas, especially those in English, and always make a point of seeing the more experimental operas each season, but this one just couldn't hack it and quickly finds itself at the bottom of our opera list.

Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," which we saw last month (March 26) remains our favorite of the 2005 season and hails at the top of our all time favorite operas list.

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