After the Disappearing Act

Illustration by John Gall and Ned DrewPhoto: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of New York City Opera

The operatic canon is a tough club to join. The core repertoire hasn’t admitted a new member since Turandot, and Samuel Barber’s Vanessa has spent almost 50 years trying to breach the outer circle, where Dead Man Walking, Verdi’s Stiffelio, and a few dozen Handel operas have lately earned a tenuous hold. Vanessa was a sensation when it opened at the Met in 1958 with a cast led by Eleanor Steber, but it quickly fizzled. When it was performed at the Salzburg Festival a few months later, European critics reacted with bien-pensant outrage, declaring Gian Carlo Menotti’s libretto—about a love triangle in a rural stately home—precious and introverted for the modern age and Barber’s score fatuously romantic. While Broadway and Hollywood had proved themselves ready for muscular social-conscience dramas like West Side Story and On the Waterfront, Vanessa suggested that American opera was still fussing over Belle Époque ballrooms. Then, in 1966, when Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra inaugurated the Met’s spanking new Lincoln Center house with a busted rotating stage, the fiasco triggered a geyser of critical scorn, sinking Barber’s career as an opera composer and taking Vanessa down, too. Antony remains in disrepute but, thanks to New York City Opera, Vanessa has finally returned to its hometown.

Today, having been out of step with the cultural polemics of the early sixties could be considered a good thing, and Barber’s stylistic conservatism now appears prescient. Along with Menotti and Carlisle Floyd (the composer of Susannah), he developed a postwar American vocal style that’s barely budged since. Listen to recent operas by John Harbison, Mark Adamo, Tobias Picker, and Ned Rorem, and you’ll hear the same fifties habits: vocal rhythms like slo-mo conversation, tender Italianate melodies inflected by Tin Pan Alley, roiling orchestration that interjects piquant accents of dissonance, and picturesque invocations of hymns or folk songs.

Vanessa never vanished. One or two of its arias became audition staples, and City Opera has freshened up Michael Yeargan’s twelve-year-old sets, made for a traveling production that originated in Dallas and D.C. But the work did acquire a reputation as an undeservedly forgotten opera, which meant that its resurrection required a cloud of hosannas that it likewise doesn’t quite merit. City Opera has not really revived a forgotten masterpiece, but a pretty-well-remembered minorpiece.

One impetus for doing so was the company’s erratic star Lauren Flanigan, a tall and fearless soprano with a voice that sometimes skitters out of control but which she can also coax into producing some very subtle sounds. Vanessa is a Miss Havisham figure, aging in seclusion as she awaits the return of her beloved Anatol, who had inexplicably disappeared twenty years earlier. Few singers are better suited than Flanigan to capture her pampered hysteria, her shroud of perpetual disappointment, or the desperate giddiness with which she latches onto the wrong Anatol—her ex-lover’s son. The tang of metal in her voice, the threat of a fortissimo toppling into a scream, the startling stretches of delicacy—Flanigan’s whole arsenal of vocal idiosyncrasies felt as if she’d developed them specifically for this role.

The performance was strong enough, in fact, to point up Barber’s weaknesses. In the pit, Anne Manson led a nuanced, airy performance that couldn’t compensate for the overmayonnaised orchestration. Rosalind Elias brought regal bitterness to Vanessa’s cadaverous and judgmental mother. Katharine Goeldner mixed a brew of winsomeness and pain, and poured it into Erika, the lonely young niece. But the women’s crosscurrents of competitiveness, guilt, and cruelty never coalesced into anything deeper than a few mournful arias. The last act’s long good-bye, when Vanessa and the young Anatol head to Paris, leaving Erika to wither in solitude, aspires to the sublime awkwardness of Chekhov and the pathos of Richard Strauss. But it doesn’t get there. Barber understood what it meant to compose a great ensemble, and the finale he crafted is intricate, fine, and human—but inert.

Samuel Barber. New York City Opera. Through November 17.

After the Disappearing Act