Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is a Gothic romance set in winter in some unspecified part of northern Europe. Three generations of aristocratic women act on their differing ideas of love and honour as they encounter the unscrupulous Anatole, son of Vanessa’s former flame of the same name. Vanessa perhaps finds happiness, but her niece, Erika, and her mother emphatically do not. The opera has a well-constructed libretto (by Gian Carlo Menotti) and an effective score that works quite well in piano reduction, which is how it was heard in the Voicebox: Opera in Concert staging April 10 in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. It’s basically tonal, with enough chromaticism to keep things interesting; and though the piece is mostly through-sung recitative, Barber does find space for a proper aria for each character, some ensembles, and brief contributions for the chorus.
The production, by Voicebox General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin, was simple but effective, providing a framework for some very good singing and acting. The trio of ladies, with Lauren Margison in the title role, Marjorie Maltais as Erika and Louisa Cowie as the old baroness, Vanessa’s mother, provided vocal and dramatic contrast. Margison’s voice has developed into a dramatic soprano of real heft. She is accurate, inflects intelligently and is capable of considerable sustained volume with well-controlled vibrato throughout her range. There are interesting colours in the lower register, and her English diction is impeccable. She’s also an effective actress, skillfully portraying a somewhat deluded Vanessa. Maltais’ somewhat lighter mezzo is beautifully lyrical and was most effective in the one well-known aria from Vanessa; “Must the winter come so soon.” She was very believable as the more idealistic and more realistic younger woman, who sees through Anatol in exactly the way Vanessa doesn’t. Cowie’s role doesn’t have much singing, but she effectively projected the mentality of a member of an older and disapproving generation.
Scott Rumble’s Anatol was well sung but hard to like, which, I suppose, is the point. He’s a cad, albeit with serious tenor high notes that were produced to good effect. Stuart Graham, as the doctor, was the nearest this rather grim piece gets to comic relief. He was good in the dance scene and as a not-too-drunk drunk in the engagement scene. Sebastien Belcourt and Taylor Gibbs handled the roles of butler and footman unobtrusively. The chorus only had a couple of numbers, one offstage, but they sang them well. English diction throughout was excellent which was important in the absence of surtitles.
Narmina Afandiyeva provided piano accompaniment with some flair. This is a rather dense score and not likely the easiest to navigate in piano reduction. All in all, this was musically a most satisfying experience, and the production, if inevitably “bare bones,” provided a very adequate framework for the musical talent to shine.
More on Voicebox: Opera In Concert’s upcoming 2022 season here.