These days it's tough to sell opera buffs on new works -- and even harder to find anyone who cares about American forays into the European-dominated art form. But opera is the same in any language: old-fashioned tuneful melodrama.
Over the past few years, the Moores Opera Center has produced a spate of contemporary works to show there's more to the standard repertory than Aida, La Bohème and Carmen. This spring, students at the Moores School of Music have undertaken a new production of Vanessa, an unusual, dark romance composed in 1956 by Samuel Barber. The libretto, written by Gian Carlo Menotti, has more in common with an Edgar Allan Poe tale than most derivative 19th-century libretti. Fraught with gothic motifs, Menotti's well-crafted verse is shrouded in melancholy and mystery similar to Hitchcock's Rebecca.
"Vanessa is a big, trashy, bodice-ripping romance with a little Chekhov and some perceptive psychological bits thrown in," says Moores Opera Center director Buck Ross. Adapted from Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, Menotti's brooding story follows a proud older woman who waits 20 years for the return of Anatol, her lover. When someone named Anatol finally appears at her door, he turns out to be her lover's son, a womanizer half her age.
During rehearsal, Ross showed a cast of experienced graduate students how to avoid making a scene between Vanessa and Anatol appear like a corny Puccini love duet. "Play Vanessa as though she were a repressed virgin, as someone who feels humiliated when Anatol pressures her to go somewhere she's never been before," the director says.
At another point, Ross has the two tenors singing Anatol practice the part of a devious, swashbuckling rake. "Anatol is base; he's almost demonic, so you've got to give him the upper hand here," he tells them. Not your typical tenor role.
Members of the dual cast are billed equally on the program. The role of Vanessa will be sung by sopranos Melanie Helton and Kelli Domke. The part of Erika, the title character's niece, will be performed by mezzo-sopranos Dawn Padula and Katherine Korsak. Anatol will be sung by tenors Javier Abreu and Tyler Smith.
Mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski, chairman of the Moores School voice division and a regular performer with Houston Grand Opera, will sing the role of the old baroness on April 6 and 8. (In the late '70s Ciesinski sang the role of Erika at the Spoleto Festival, a career-boosting production telecast on PBS.)
Moores Opera Center recently was awarded a grant from the Cullen Trust for the Performing Arts to revive contemporary pieces and to commission new works appropriate for universities. Although Vanessa premiered in 1958, Ross lumps it into the contemporary canon. "Vanessa is the kind of piece that in the '40s would have been known as a woman's picture," he says.