Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Sarasota Opera

Kara Shay Thomson, Scott Piper and
Audrey Babcock

Sarasota Opera is currently presenting Samuel Barber's Vanessa in a powerfully acted and sung production as part of its American Classics Series. Vanessa had a high profile world premier at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1958, it had been 11 years since the Met had commissioned a new opera, and it was the first world premier of the Rudolph Bing era. The title role was offered to Maria Callas who thought it unsuitable, several other sopranos were penciled in before the plum assignment went to American Eleanor Steber who had a major success and career boost. Also starring were young mezzo Rosalind Elias, tenor Nicolai Gedda, Contralto Regina Resnick and bass Giorgio Tozzi (most famous for dubbing Rossano Brazzi in the movie South Pacific). It proved to be a big hit with critics and audiences. It returned the following season, was broadcast twice and revived again in 1965. Since then it has gained a foothold in the repertory, besides its original cast recording for RCA Victor, it has had two other recordings, and productions pop up fairly regularly. I made my first acquaintance with this opera as a youngster by listening to the original recording, available from my public library (Newton, Massachusetts), although the adult emotions were way over my head at this stage. I later reacquainted myself with it by attending a performance, recorded by Naxos records, by Boston Opera. I have grown to like this opera a great deal over the years I have known it.

Vanessa is in a post Richard Strauss idiom, thick, lush orchestration, chromatic but positively tonal. At the time it was written it should not have been overly challenging for its audiences, which is perhaps why they embraced it. Several of its set pieces have had some life outside the opera such as Erika's aria "Must the Winter Come So Soon" and Vanessa's "Do Not Utter a Word, Anatol" (famously recorded by Leontyne Price). There is also an exquisite Soprano/Tenor duet "Love has a bitter core" and the final actions of the opera are propelled by a quintet "To leave, to break, to find to keep ... "

This is an opera rich with wonderful music. The orchestra, conducted by David Neely played superbly, provides a beautiful sonic carpet for the singers, but never overpowering them. Neely keeps the textures as clear as the thick orchestrations allow. I had the opportunity to speak with several of the young musicians on my way back to my car and share with them how wonderful I thought they were. All of this was in support of some outstanding singing. Kara Shay Thomson in the title role shows a full rich soprano, already capable of filling out some of the heavier roles in her voice category. She had a great success as Tosca with Sarasota Opera in 2009, a favorite role of Eleanor Steber as well. Sarasota Opera is in the midst of performing all of the operas that Verdi wrote, and they still have not performed Aida. Could Ms. Thomson command the stage as the Ethiopian slave/princess? As Vanessa, she commands the stage, obviously mistress of the manor. When the son of her long ago lover arrives, she allows us to see the character's emotional reawakening, after years of waiting in solitude. It is a well acted performance, as well as assured vocally. Audrey Babcock also acts well as Vanessa's niece Erika. She shows a major transformation as the character begins to know the truth about a possible relationship with Anatol. She is helped by a change in her hair, down and youthful in act one, up and more severe after their confrontation. Her singing is powerful enough to ride the orchestral climaxes.

Scott Piper as Anatol handles his assignment with poise. He makes a handsome Anatol, but brings out the aspect of the character that he is not entirely comfortable with the rich surroundings he finds himself in. He explains that he was born to wealth, but his family squandered it and now he can only afford to drink the wine of others. His singing is capable, especially in his important duets with Vanessa and Erika. Cindy Sadler as The Old Baroness presents a harsh persona, unhappy with the goings on around her. She brings a gravitas to the proceedings, absolutely appropriate to the emotional climate of the household. Thomas Potter as The Old Doctor gives an extraordinary performance. His singing is on par with the rest of the excellent cast, but this is a role for an excellent character actor and he delivers. The character is drunk in the second act. At the end of the scene, he weaves his way up a spiraling staircase, and we are not sure that he isn't going to stumble and fall. The entire cast is helped by the excellent Stage Direction of Michael Unger, who helps them realize the physicality of their characters and the limited action of the story.

Sets by Michael Schweikardt are functional, but the lavishness of the household is more imagined than seen. Costumes by Howard Tsvi Kaplan are beautiful. Vanessa has several lovely outfits, including a fabulous traveling ensemble for the final act.

It was unfortunate that there were a fair number of empty seats at the Sunday matinee that I attended, especially because Vanessa is receiving the fewest performances of any of the operas being presented this season, only six, because that means that more people might have experienced this first rate performance of an opera rapidly becoming an American Classic.

Sarasota Opera presents Vanessa through March 24. 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota. For tickets and information call (941) 366-8450 or visit

Kara Shay Thomson as Vanessa
Audrey Babcock as Erika
Cindy Sadler as The Old Baroness
Scott Piper as Anatol
Thomas Potter as The Old Doctor
Stephen Fish* as Nicholas, the Major Domo
Andrew Droes* as Footman

* Sarasota Opera Studio Artist

Conductor: David Neely
Stage Director: Michael Unger
Scenic Designer: Michael Schweikardt
Costume Designer: Howard Tsvi Kaplan
Lighting Designer: Ken Yunker
Wigs and Make-Up Designer: Georgianna Eberhard
Chorus Master: Roger L. Bingaman
Assistant Conductors: Richard Cordova and Sean Kelly
Chnoreographers: Rebecca Bryan and Meghan Sinclair

Photo: Rod Millington Photo

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--William S. Oser

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