Barber's `Vanessa' - an opera that should be staged more often. St. Louis Opera Theatre also presents a rather tepid `Boh`eme'

Opera Theatre of St. Louis has capped its 13th season with a provocative, if sometimes irritating, production of Samuel Barber's neglected first and best opera, ``Vanessa.'' Opera Theatre has built its reputation on the unusual, without utterly abandoning its subscribers to the totally unfamiliar. Thus, this season's audiences have had a chance to savor Puccini's ``La Boh`eme'' as well as ``Vanessa'' and neglected works by Mozart and Weber (the latter two works were reviewed here Wednesday).

Settings pushed forward in time

``Boh`eme'' and ``Vanessa'' have been updated. But it was hard to tell why director Linda Brovksy chose to push the `Boh`eme' action from 1848 to 1908, so squalid were Robert Perdziola's sets and Marie Anne Chiment's costumes. This unexpectedly ordinary ``Boh`eme'' never took advantage of the intimacy of the 900-seat Loretto-Hilton Center theater to bring these characters to life. Rather, the generally young cast seemed to have been left to its own devices. The best performance was Katherine Terrell's vulnerable, responsive, and strongly sung Musetta. The finest voice belonged to baritone Gaetan Laperriere, who, as Marcello, sang so impressively that one hardly noticed his still-rough histrionic edges. Kallen Esperian's Mimi was well enough sung, though the voice is more efficient than memorably beautiful, and she communicated nothing emotionally. Of the rest of the cast, I found Eric McCluskey, the Schaunard, sincere, and he revealed a baritone of fine potential. Hal France conducted earnestly.

The updating of ``Vanessa'' from 1905 to the 1950s gave designer Kevin Rupnik a chance to lavish upon the title character a series of memorable high-fashion costumes. Otherwise, I don't see that the time-change added anything to this odd story of a narcissistic woman's self-delusion, as she lives in repressive isolation for 20 years to preserve her beauty for the return of her lover, Anatol.

Surely, the moral and social conventions of the drama are no longer valid by the '50s, and the result is a blunting of the less-than-remarkable libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti. Vanessa's plight may seem more sensational if she falls for a leather-clad James Dean-style outsider, rather than the son of the now-dead Anatol Sr. But this treatment reduces several important emotional complexities to mere carnal attraction.

Production both troublesome and unforgettable

Nevertheless, I found this production at once troublesome and unforgettable. So much of director Graham Vick's staging illuminates the interrelationships of the characters that the excesses only confuse and vex all the more. Vick, who reveals a paradoxical contempt for the work in his program note, is at his best when he follows Barber's leads rather than Menotti's poorly motivated text. For in Barber's music one hears the emotional core of the drama, as it explores just how blind people can be and to what lengths they will go to live a lie.

The sense of blind passions in control pervades most of Vick's staging, so one wonders why he bothers to place the action in front of a replica of the Paris Op'era curtain. Of course this device does remind us that this is an opera, and that ``Vanessa'' is a desperate relic of an antique art form. And, ironically, that curtain allows Vick some startlingly theatrical gestures, such as Anatol's torch-lit arrival during a raging snowstorm.

``Vanessa'' is the best-acted production of the Opera Theatre season. Everyone fits deftly into the production, and Vick garners some extraordinary performances, even if the singing is not consistently remarkable.

Richard Stilwell turned in a superb vocal and visual characterization as the Old Doctor. As the Old Baroness, Elaine Bonazzi turned a dour scowl into a kaleidoscope of suppressed responses and emotions. As Erika, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was the audience favorite, and no wonder: She is a forceful actress, and her girlish timbre fits this production ideally. Perhaps John David De Haan isn't sufficiently experienced to act Anatol without the help of his outlandish costumes, but I'd have liked to see him try. He sings the role quite well, despite some pinched high notes.

An unerring rightness

Patricia Wells is the visual embodiment of this production's Vanessa, with her elegant posture and handsome looks. Unfortunately, the voice lacks the ease and tonal plushness of a few years ago, so some of her communicative effectiveness is compromised. And yet, time and again, with those arresting costumes, I was struck by her unerring rightness of pose and demeanor.

Joseph Rescigno has the unenviable task of making a reduced version of Barber's intricate, superb score sound effective in a hall with bad acoustics, and he manages it well and with passion. Indeed, this presentation is proof that this neglected American gem deserves to be heard on our major opera stages. The final performance is tomorrow.

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