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‘Vanessa’s’ wintry discontent

Times Staff Writer

A confession: Despite an otherwise iron musical stomach, I have no appetite for the music of Samuel Barber and am unable to tolerate his tawdry opera “Vanessa.”

I own the three recordings of it but have never gotten past the first act in any. (My finger instinctively hit the eject button after the first screechy melodramatic minute of the new Naxos release.) I attended a production at the Juilliard School in New York some dozen years ago and fled at intermission.

My antipathy to the opera even put me off Isak Dinesen, whose “Gothic Tales” inspired it, for a long time. (Now finding that an amazing Danish writer can hold me in her spell makes me dislike Barber’s effort all the more.)

So earlier this year, when Los Angeles Opera announced that it would mount a production of “Vanessa,” I immediately plotted my escape. Possibly Peter Eotvos’ new opera based on “Angels in America” in Paris could be my ticket.

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It didn’t work.

Over the years, I’ve avoided root canals, major surgery, colonoscopy; I’ve stayed out of prison and the Army. But Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, I met my Barberous fate and found out how “Vanessa” ends.

Badly. But, of course, one knows that from the crashing chords that open the opera as if it were the soundtrack of a second-rate ‘50s film noir.

Three dreary women -- aging mother, daughter, daughter’s niece -- remain dreary to the stubborn end. They are three generations who can’t figure out how to love, and worse, they are not interesting about their not figuring it out. No one, alas, dies. Many reference books state that Gian Carlo Menotti, the librettist and the composer’s companion, based the opera on a Dinesen story, but they are wrong. Attuned to her gothic mood but lacking her language and soul, he came up with “Vanessa” all by himself, and it shows.

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Obviously, sitting though a couple of hours of bad opera is not the most horrible of fortunes, and L.A. Opera eases the pain with good singers, a workable production and, thanks to Simone Young in the pit, a highly effective conductor. Barber wanted Maria Callas in the title role for the opera’s Metropolitan Opera premiere, which took place in 1958. She knew better and refused it. Los Angeles gets Kiri Te Kanawa, and she will surely bring in the audiences. She’s 60 and not singing much these days. But she’s still a diva, head to toe, and if you want to see her, this is your chance.

“Vanessa” operates as highbrow soap opera. Somewhere wintry and Nordic, Vanessa has spent the last 20 of her 39 years shut in, never having gotten over a lover who left her, waiting for his return. Her mother, the Baroness, is so sickened by the monotony of it all she won’t speak to her daughter. Vanessa’s naive niece, Erika, is strangely devoted to these tiresome creatures.

A tenor awakens love. Anatol, the gold-digging son of Vanessa’s old lover, arrives. He seduces Erika. She loves him but is suspicious of him. So he takes what he can get. Vanessa runs off with him to Paris (and we know where that will lead). Erika chooses to become the new shut-in vainly awaiting Anatol’s return. The Baroness, disgusted all over again, is left speechless all over again. Gloomy winter looks over everyone’s shoulder.

Barber milks the melodrama, and some would say milks it well (the opera won him a Pulitzer). The style was old-fashioned for its day, harking back to verismo opera, and it might seem pathetically prehistoric half a century later were there not a new generation of young American composers aping it.

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You would be hard-pressed to recognize an American in the writing, although the orchestration is bright and some of the rhythms fit vernacular English. Barber knew how to coddle the voice, to set a mood. But he didn’t know how to shock very well. There is a thuggish, loud dissonance for each clunky, calculated revelation (Erika is pregnant! Crash! Boom!).

The straightforward production by John Cox is unobjectionable. The set -- a glass-enclosed winter garden (the glass here being some sort of plastic that wobbles with every timpani thud, of which there are many) -- was designed by Paul Brown and is strikingly lighted.

Though older than Vanessa is supposed to be, Te Kanawa looks the part and acts it convincingly. She guards her voice and can seem understated, but the cream is still there, and understatement isn’t a bad thing in “Vanessa.” Lucy Schaufer makes Erika vivid. Rosalind Elias, who sang Erika in the original Met production, is perfect for the Baroness -- she’s so creepy she almost could be a petrified relic from that premiere. John Matz is an agreeable Anatol. But pity David Evitts having to ham it up as the women’s dopey, drunken Doctor.

Then there is the orchestra. It sounded fabulous Saturday. That Young was able to get so much character from the winds and brass in this score is cause for astonishment. What an outstanding conductor she has become. She did what even the great Dimitri Mitropoulos, the first “Vanessa” conductor, could not do for me on his recording -- keep me listening.

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‘Vanessa’

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 9, 15, 18; 2 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 12

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Price: $25 to $190

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.losangelesopera.com


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