My mom’s sister Kathy, aka my Crazy Aunt Kathy, aka The High Priestess of the Chinchilla Bikini, got my review of *Lucia* a few weeks ago and was reminded of the time she and I went to see *La Gioconda* in Chicago, and other trips to the opera:
“This old feminist, super-cranky boomer, aka, senior citizen just can't put up with the pathetic women of opera. I get such a queasiness from my head to my cushioned seat. I have to bite my tongue so I can't shout out ‘Run Forrest!’ or, ‘Kick him in the nuts!’ to the female actress…At least in your newest opera, Lucia, she gets to kill someone. Oh, but, alas.... she is CRAZY. The only reason a woman in opera can do anything sensible... like kill the guy?? Oh, please!...How any woman can sit through watching the masochistic or helpless, obviously brain-dead heroine being MANipulated, tortured, having her mother blinded, her sister killed, her dog drowned, or her family estate burned to the ground – it’s just too much for an old bag to handle. I've tried.”
Is she a piece of work, or what? Do I hear an “Ay-men”? I warned her that the next opera on my schedule, *Vanessa*, won’t be any more palatable to the NOW set. Here’s my synopsis - - though my tone is rather snarky, so maybe it’s a snarkopsis?
Samuel Barber's *Vanessa* was written for the Met in 1958. It takes place in 19th century Northern Europe, on a remote country estate. Vanessa, "a lady of considerable beauty" (aka a rich middle-aged broad) has spent the last twenty years or so waiting for the return of her lover, Anatol. She covered all the mirrors, so she could be spared the sight of her aging self (very *Sunset Boulevard*). At some point she acquired a niece, Erika. Also in the house is Vanessa's mother, The Baroness, a spooky old crone who doesn't say much. She stopped speaking to Vanessa when Anatol left the scene, I guess she thought that was unbecoming for a lady.
When the opera starts, Vanessa's lover is on his way back to her. He arrives, and she goes into a dither. He's standing there, shadowy in the doorway (always a good look for a tenor), and she stands with her back to him and delivers a stunning aria, "Do not utter a word". She basically says, "I'm an old broad now. Take it or leave it." He says, "I think that I shall love you." Vanessa is horror-struck, turns around - - it's NOT HIM! "Oh God! Oh God! Impostor! Cheat!" Etc. This guy is Anatol's SON, also named Anatol. Vanessa swoons offstage, Erika takes over as hostess, and spends the night with him. Why not?
Vanessa and Anatol are lovey-dovey for the rest of the opera, with Erika seething off on the side. There's a big ball announcing their engagement, and Erika decides it’s the perfect time for her to bring on a miscarriage! We didn't even know she was expecting! <<Scan-DALE!>> She recovers, and before long Vanessa and Anatol are headed off on a grand tour of warmer climates. Vanessa questions Erika one last time about whether or not Anatol had anything to do with that mysterious illness, but Erika (not a total dumb bunny) knows that she doesn't really want to know the truth.
The highlight of the opera is the quintet - - oh wait, I didn't tell you about the fifth leading character, The Doctor. A baritone. Doesn't do much, has no real place in the plot, but you can't have an opera without a baritone. Anyway, the quintet is one of the most stunning pieces of music in the world. And I love the text, by Gian Carlo Menotti, though I admit it’s overripe:
To leave, to break
To find, to keep
To stay, to wait
To hope, to dream
To weep, and remember
To love is all of this
And none of it is love
The light is not the sun
Nor the tide the moon
Vanessa and Anatol leave, giving The Doctor a ride into town in their sleigh. Yes, their sleigh. Erika weepily waves goodbye from the window, like Lassie. And whadya know, now The Baroness won't talk to her, either. And in those days, they didn't have cable! The opera ends with Erika ordering for the mirrors to be covered again. She sits down and says, "Now it is my turn to wait."
I’ve had a recording for *Vanessa* for over 15 years, and love it to death. It’s been at the head of my Must See list all that time (it’s rarely done), and I was so thrilled to hear that the City Opera was doing it this season. The obvious choice for my date was my best friend Karen Miller. She likes 20th century opera, but more importantly is a fan of Lauren Flanigan, the soprano playing Vanessa. We saw her in *Lilith* at NYCO in 2001 - - this was a new opera by Deborah Dratell about Lilith, Adam’s first wife. Flanigan played Eve, and wrung every drop of hysteria out of the character. Neither of us will soon forget the image of her droopy boobs in the shabby old slip she wore for what felt like half the opera.
LAUREN FLANIGAN: Vanessa, soprano
She sounded generally good and acted up a storm. She doesn’t always sing in tune - - she’s two cents flat too much of the time. Someone needs to cure her of that. But the voice was secure and attractive, and she looked great, especially in the chrome-colored velvet gown in the first scene.
KATHERINE GOELDNER: Erika, mezzo
I hadn’t heard her before, gorgeous voice, I want to hear more of her. Flings herself about with great conviction (more about that later).
ROSALIND ELIAS: Baroness, mezzo
She created the role of Erika at the Met in 1958, so she’s, shall we say, beyond retirement age. Her voice was barely audible - - Karen remarked, “Someone needs to get her a body mic.” The conductor (or someone) made the good choice to have a french horn supplement her line in the quintet, so you could hear it. But the voice that’s there sounds good, and sounds like her, and she glowers well.
RYAN MACPHERSON: Anatol, tenor
Marvelous voice, luscious and strong and full of flavor, like a young Bordeaux. Played the cad with great dash. Nice looking.
RICHARD STILWELL: The Doctor, baritone
He was the young baritone of choice at the Met in the late 70s and 80s, and he still sounds very good. His part is pretty awful - - he’s the comic relief, but his bits are unfunny and eye-roll inducing. Besides, Karen and I found plenty to laugh at in the moments of high drama.
The Opera Itself
You know how pumped I was to see this opera, for years. Well, it was a disappointment. This opera exists better in my mind than it does on the stage. I bet it would be even more impressive on LP than it is on CD. It’s musty, and the women’s roles have a stale, rigid, 1958-nostalgia-for-a-19th-century-that-never-was quality that doesn’t hold up very well. This kind of thing would have been perfect in a Douglas Sirk movie starring Lana Turner, Susan Hayward, or Rita Hayworth, and Karen and I decided it could easily be adapted into a play starring drag diva Charles Busch (the man who brought us *Psycho Beach Party*, *Die Mommie Die*, and *Vampire Lesbians of Sodom*).
You may remember from my review of *Lucia* that I got a little tired of Lucia being flung to the floor. This production had a lot of women flinging themselves about, which I guess is a more liberated choice, but still - - a little of that goes a long way. Karen and I counted nine different flingings:
Erika, to the floor, Act One, scene 1.
Erika, to the floor, Act One, scene 2.
Erika, into the Baroness’s lap, weeping, Act One, scene 2.
Erika, face down into a footstool, weeping, Act One, scene 2.
Erika, passing out on stairs, Act Two.
Vanessa, onto a Victorian conversation grouping setee, Act Two.
Erika, in a snowbank, between Act Two and Act Three (note that this flinging occurs offstage, but it’s a major plot turning point, so we felt we should include it).
Vanessa, onto a chair, Act Three, scene 1.
Erika, onto a couch, Act Three, scene 2.
There was also a lot of wrap-flinging:
Act One: Vanessa wore a smoky grey organza wrap in the first scene, which looked divine with that chrome velvet gown. She stood up and flung it to the floor at one point, then picked it up and put it back on when Anatol was about to enter. She flung it off again when she swooned later in the scene, and Anatol picked it up and sniffed it. Erika wore a dowdy wool wrap with flaccid fringe, and flung it about with the same frequency.
Act Two: no wraps of any kind, though the footman had a moment burying his head in a woman’s fur.
Act Three: In the scene in Erika’s sick room, Vanessa picked up Erika’s wrap off a chair and had a tender moment with it. And in the last scene, Vanessa, Anatol, and the Doctor went off in their sleigh Erika opened a wooden box resting on a bench at the back of the room and pulled out (yes, you guessed it!) the smoky grey organza wrap. That was a very strange touch, that wooden box - - it felt ritualistic, like something out of the Noh Theatre of Japan.
The funniest moment of the whole opera was in the first scene. Anatol was pulling into the driveway and Vanessa started putting the room in order for his entrance and her aria. She went around the room and turned off each of the wall sconces, I think there were five of them. The light in the room got a bit dimmer - - but her damn follow spot was just as bright! It was a RIOT, Karen and I lost it.
The sets were handsome, but some of the choices were a bit odd. The opera takes place, as you know, in a grand house in a northern country in the 19th century. Well, the room in the first scene had tall windows and french doors along the back wall, and you know there’s got to be a serious draft coming in under the door. And those weren’t Anderson windows. It must have been 34 degrees in that room, and that’s not a comfortable atmosphere in which to wear a chrome velvet gown with a smoky organza wrap - - you’d be wearing flannel and fur, and you’d stay close to the fireplace. And in the second act, the conversation grouping setee, the big-bulbed chandelier, and Vanessa’s red velveteen gown with puffed sleeves, it was all very *Gunsmoke*.
A conversation fragment from the first intermission:
KAREN: I liked how at the end of this scene, everyone went offstage to go to church, but Erika decided to stay at home, sit on the couch, and masturbate.
ME: She was masturbating?
ME: I missed that, I was listening to the hymn.
KAREN: I make that same choice every Sunday morning: go to church, or masturbate on the couch?
Later, we were standing at the back of the top balcony, talking, and we heard a strange crinkling sort of noise. I looked around, and saw the source: it was an old woman standing at her seat, facing the back of the balcony (facing us). She had taken a piece of Saran wrap and spread it out over her seat, and was using a Kleenex to wipe it off. The Kleenex would move across the Saran: crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. Then she’d see another spot that needed wiping: crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. This went on for five to ten minutes. What could be on that Saran that would require such dedicated cleaning? Cream cheese? Olive oil? More to the point, does she not have running water at her apartment? Or, if she really had to do this at the City Opera, why couldn’t she do it in the ladies’ room? Karen and I had to turn around. We couldn’t stop watching, it was hypnotic.