Sunday, November 18, 2007

Vanessa by Samuel Barber

Playing solo English horn in the New York City Opera run of "Vanessa" by Samuel Barber has been an honor and a musical high point. I've known this rarity through recordings since I was a teenager; what a thrill to perform the work at Lincoln Center. The only sad note is that Albert Fuller, who loved the work and kept a piano-vocal score in his music library, didn't live to see the production.

Click here to read Anthony Tommasini's review in the New York Times.

Barber's score is richly orchestrated and he borrows liberally from good source material . . . Vanessa's innocent love music directly suggests passages from Stravinsky's Firebird both in melody and harmonization, as do many other passages throughout. The "Oedipus" music in Act I quotes the jazz standard "April in Paris." (Does this presage Anatola and Vanessa's trip to Paris at the end of the opera?) Richard Strauss, Puccini, Charles Ives, Mahler, Copland, Bernard Hermann, and Nelson Riddle are all frequent contributors to the feast Barber organized. Yet the derivative elements of the music weave together into an original musical tapestry, firmly set in its time, yet powerful and moving decades later. It pays to borrow from the best.

Lauren Flanigan, as Vanessa, chews the scenery in a searing account of self-blinded love. Katharine Goeldner's assured, nuanced account of Erika is one I will long remember. An intelligent artist at the height of her strength, when the music called for power, her clarion tone filled the hall with beautiful sound. Her quiet, heart-broken utterances reached out to the audience with generous intimacy.

During a post-performance dinner with friends at Jean-George, Katharine told the story of Rosalind Elias, who premiered and role of Erika and plays the Baroness in this production, demurely requesting Barber write Erika an aria. "Must Winter Come So Soon," is the haunting result. It could be a jazz standard, itself, (Audra, are you reading this?) and is the last moment of innocence before Anatol's greed-driven machinations ("Love Has a Bitter Core") forever changes the lives of Vanessa and Erika.

The run closed yesterday afternoon. When Katharine came out for her curtain call, rather than walking right to center stage to accept her enthusiastic applause, she went to Rosalind and brought her to center stage for special recognition. The applause swelled, the women embraced. Katharine turned to Richard Stilwell (who played the doctor) and swiped the handkerchief from his breast pocket to dry her tears. We all were reaching from hankies at this point. It was a great tribute.

No comments: