Cast members from Boulder Opera's "Vanessa" visit CPR's performance studio

(Photo: Chloe Veltman)
When Samuel Barber's opera "Vanessa" premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1958, it was greeted with wild acclaim -- and a Pulitzer Prize for its composer. "At last, an American grand opera!" Dimitri Metropoulos, who conducted the inaugural production, said. 

But the work gradually faded from view, mostly owing to the shortcomings of Gian Carlo Menotti's overly melodramatic libretto, which unfolds in a Northern European country in 1905 and tells the story of a melancholy aristocrat who falls for the rakish son of her former lover. 

However, over the last couple of decades, "Vanessa" has made a comeback.

Audiences and critics have recognized the dramatic power of Barber's score. "'Vanessa,' unlike many American operas for which great claims are made, has real musical substance and increases its hold on the audience as the evening goes on," the critic Alex Ross noted in a review of the Washington Opera's 1995 staging for The New York Times. 

The Boulder Opera's new production of this reinstated gem, starring Meagan Mahlberg in the title role, opens this weekend at Boulder's Dairy Center for the Arts.

Featuring direction and video by Aaron Angello, Jessica Page's choreography and the Boulder Philharmonic under the direction of Michael Tilley, "Vanessa" represents the two-year-old company's first foray into staging a full-length experimental work. 

CPR chatted with Tilley about how the company developed its staging of the opera. 

CPR: Why is the Boulder Opera staging "Vanessa"?

Michael Tilley: Boulder Opera hopes to develop new audiences and highlight underrepresented works in a collaborative and interdisciplinary context. Vanessa is therefore a perfect inaugural production for a number of reasons. Although the opera’s 1958 premiere garnered a Pulitzer and numerous accolades, it has yet to find its place in the standard repertory. This relative unfamiliarity has inspired our creative team to be innovative. In addition to his vibrant and focused staging, stage director Aaron Angello has created original videography to complement Jessica Page’s expressive and versatile choreography. These elements serve to highlight the gifts of our local singers and instrumentalists.
 
CPR: Many great singers have performed the title role since the opera premiered in 1958, including Kiri Te Kanawa, Renee Fleming and Leontyne Price. What attracts top vocalists to the role of Vanessa?
 

Michael Tilley: The part of Vanessa can claim an impressive roster of talents, to be sure. And let us not forget the incomparable Eleanor Steber, who stepped into the role a mere six weeks before the premiere at the Met in 1958 and displayed memorable range and sensitivity in her rendering of this complex and demanding character. I believe that great singers love this role largely because its bravura demands are immediately and viscerally rewarding for the singer as well as for the audience. Samuel Barber himself nearly became a professional singer and the rare recordings of radio broadcasts of his performances of Schubert lieder truly showcase his rich and mellow baritone. Hence, he knew at the most basic level how to write lyrical, impassioned music that, while it may appear quite difficult -- and it is! -- is only ever so in service of the emotional content of the language itself.

CPR: After initial critical acclaim for the premiere at The Metropolitan Opera, "Vanessa" met with disdain from critics on both sides of the Atlantic, who widely felt the work to be "Un-American." Why did Barber's opera meet with such derision?
 
Michael Tilley: Critics often tend to dismiss works which defy easy categorization. Although Barber was as homegrown as any American composer could be, he was also -- as are so many great composers -- quite continental. Fluent in French, German, Italian and Spanish, from an early age he developed a musical language that was both steeped in the contrapuntal tradition of Europe and the avant-garde techniques of the 20th century. He assimilated his many influences into a rich palette, which was ever in service of his unerring sense of melody. So, while Vanessa is an "American" opera by virtue of the composer’s nationality, it is not, nor does it strive to be, self-consciously so. Set in an unidentified "northern country," the opera instead explores the universal themes of love, honesty and self-knowledge in an achingly unsparing and intimate light. The work challenges the audience without providing simplistic answers. The essential feature of Barber’s art is his belief that the composer can and must transmit his own feelings, however complex and melancholy they may be -- and they were! Perhaps it is this belief in the unique potency of individual expression that makes Samuel Barber, and his music, quintessentially American.
 
CPR: To what extent does "Vanessa" provide a prism through which to consider American culture today?
 
Michael Tilley: The conflict at Vanessa’s core has only grown more relevant to modern audiences. Born in 1910, Samuel Barber’s lifetime saw the introduction of radio and television. It even bookended the personal computer. Life at Vanessa’s manor has not altered in 30 years. Since being abandoned by her lover, Anatol, she has ordered all of the portraits and mirrors in the house to be covered in a desperate attempt to cling to her youth and beauty. When Anatol arrives, she is shocked to find that it is not the man she expected, but rather his son. This interloper brings the modern world with him, seducing both Vanessa and her niece, Erika, with his easy manner and blatant sensuality. He sings to Erika: "Outside this house, the world has changed; life is swifter than before. There is no time for idle gestures…I cannot offer you eternal love, for we have learned today such words are lies." It is an "existentialist" work in the best sense of the word, a rich tapestry of action, fleeting bliss and grief which ultimately vanishes in what has to win the prize for the quietest ending ever. 
 
CPR: What distinguishes the Boulder Opera's staging of "Vanessa" from other productions of the opera to date?
 
Michael Tilley: We are integrating dance into several of the extended orchestral interludes. And then there's the evocative use of videographic elements. This is also a unique "Vanessa" in that it is scored for a chamber orchestra. Barber’s original orchestration was massive, calling for more than 70 instruments. Though such an ensemble would entice any conductor, I am not sure if such an orchestra could even fit on the stage at the Dairy Center. There would be little room for acting, to be sure. The condensed orchestration we are presenting retains much of the original’s sweep and passion while also achieving an intimacy and transparency. 
 
The Boulder Opera's production of "Vanessa" runs Friday, Feb. 28 - Sunday, March 2 at The Dairy Center for the Arts. Tickets are $25 - $45.