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Not many art forms can trace their lineage back to a bunch of guys sitting around saying, “Hey, let’s create an art form!” But that’s essentially what happened when the artists and intellectuals of the Florentine Camerata decided that 16th-century Italy needed something fresh. Theater and music were already pretty terrific on their own, they figured, so why not put ’em together? A sung play. A madrigal with a plot. A new superart that could emulate ancient Greek tragedy, with its synthesis of many artistic disciplines into a greater whole.

Funny thing is, they actually pulled it off. And over the course of the past four centuries—in spite of some decisive victories of great music over terrible words (and a few routs the other way ’round)—there have been many of those magical instances when a truly intelligent libretto meets an inspired score and a fine piece of music-drama emerges. As the new kid on the operatic block, America hasn’t had the time (or the lived-in tradition) to generate a lot of these paragons of the form on its own. But Samuel Barber’s 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning magnum opus, Vanessa, set to a libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti, stands above most of its American competition as an example of truly complete operatic writing.

As a composer, Menotti has a cloying style and a taste for melodramatic effect that tend to overwhelm the adroit, often insightful poetry of his librettos. But it’s a different story when Menotti’s words find expression in Barber’s haunted, psychologically rich orchestral writing. Barber’s handsome score, which draws alternately (and sometimes all at once) upon the opulence of Strauss, the angularity of Britten, the crushing dissonance of the Second Viennese School, and the heady atmospherics of ’50s Hollywood, nevertheless speaks in its own confident, unmistakably American voice. This is an opera that doesn’t give up all its secrets on first hearing, but rewards listeners with new felicities and deeper layers on return visits.

That’s because Barber has his characters “converse” in expansive—if tantalizingly elusive—melody, while the orchestra unleashes their roiling psyches. The Washington Opera’s current production thrusts those inner lives very much to the fore, thanks to conductor Emmanuel Joel’s perceptive work in the pit. The score’s aching wistfulness registers as vividly as its sheer beauty. The important orchestral interludes come across with all their requisite sweep, and Barber’s jolts of pungent color are given admirable clarity. Most important, though, the tension remains palpable throughout: There’s no doubt at any point in the evening that devastating loss is just beyond the door.

And loss is very much the theme in Vanessa, starting with the title character. The middle-aged Vanessa has locked herself away, Miss Havisham-style, for 20 years in a mansion, attended by her niece Erika and shunned by her disapproving mother, the Old Baroness. All the mirrors in the house are shrouded, and Erika labors mightily to help preserve the illusion that Vanessa hasn’t aged in the two decades since her lover, Anatol, broke off their relationship, as well as to convince Vanessa that Anatol is coming back any day now to reclaim her. When an Anatol does show up, however, it’s Anatol Jr., with news that his father has died. He promptly whisks the unworldly Erika to bed, but when she refuses his proposal, he marries the delusional Vanessa instead. Erika—who attempts suicide and miscarries Anatol’s child before the third-act curtain—decides to take Vanessa’s place in the house, shrouded mirrors and all, as her clueless aunt runs off to Paris for a sure-to-be-loveless marriage.

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Not exactly a load o’ yuks. Imagine Bernarda Alba Meets Arabella in the Cherry Orchard, as written by Henrik Ibsen for Warner Bros. But a perceptive production can reveal the light and hope in this tale of lost youth, lost love, and lost innocence, and Stephen Lawless proves himself every bit as sensitive a stage director in this revival as Michael Kahn was when WashOp’s production made its first appearance in 1995. Lawless revels in the story’s subtextual possibilities, often challenging accepted notions of what makes these characters tick through the smallest behavioral details.

Erika’s self-satisfied smile, as she relinquishes the unscrupulous Anatol to her aunt, speaks volumes about her simmering resentment for the self-absorbed Vanessa—and paints her sacrifice not as an act of masochism, but as a coup within the household power structure. Likewise, Vanessa’s avoidance of Anatol’s easy embrace when questioning him about his feelings for Erika and her wariness about his reassurances suggest that Vanessa’s reality avoidance is very much a conscious choice—one thinks of Mme Arkadina in The Seagull, another work that casts a long shadow over this opera—making her behavior appear that much more unnervingly selfish and destructive to those around her. As if basing his concept around the gorgeous final quintet, in which the singers temporarily step out of the opera to comment on the sad little futures their characters will face, Lawless makes all the characters in the opera somehow knowing and complicitous in their dysfunction: They make their own beds of nails, then willingly lie in them.

Lawless has the good fortune to be working with a cast of skilled singing actors, who complete the process of creating an opera that speaks eloquently as both theater and music. Kiri Te Kanawa has been before the public now for over three decades, and her Vanessa is a significant addition to an extensive repertoire. In spite of some thinning in its tone, some metal creeping into its upper register, and an incipient beat developing on sustained notes, the rich loveliness of Dame Kiri’s soprano is still very much in evidence. She can still float exquisite, pianissimo high notes with the best of them, and she plays Vanessa with a self-communing remoteness and a little-girl-lost look in her eyes that bespeak a life built of dreams and rationalizations. Enunciating her words with crystal clarity—indeed, the entire cast is so good on this score that surtitles of Menotti’s English-language text prove a needless crutch—she acts with a natural grace. And her striking physical beauty has grown, if anything, more refined over the years.

The excellent young American mezzo Lucy Schaufer sings Erika with the open, flexible high notes of a lyric soprano and a hooded lower register that plays well to the character’s melancholy. If she doesn’t entirely banish thoughts of Charlotte Hellekant’s heart-rending performance in WashOp’s 1995 staging of Vanessa—there’s just a hair too much hand-to-forehead angst and chin-jutting resolve dotting her performance—Schaufer nevertheless presents a wonderfully thought-through and emotionally arresting portrayal of the opera’s most interesting and complex character.

When family illness caused tenor Jon Villars to cancel his engagement as Anatol, his understudy, John Matz, filled in at the eleventh hour. Tall and boyishly handsome, the 24-year-old Matz makes an impressive WashOp debut here, with a sweet, virile lyric-tenor voice and charmingly caddish acting. There are moments when his ne’er-do-well grinning becomes too insistent, too obviously manipulative, but his relentless come-on to the women of the house is not without its unsettling charms.

On the other end of the experiential scale, mezzo Rosalind Elias, who created the role of Erika in the Met’s world-premiere production of Vanessa just short of 45 years ago, returns to the opera as a formidable Old Baroness. Her voice has lost much of its power but little of its dark tonal core, and her acting manages both subtle insinuation and outsized imperiousness with equal success. Veteran baritone David Evitts does charming, surprisingly touching work as the Doctor, and WashOp stalwarts James Shaffran and Tony Dillon make something quietly memorable of the servants’ parts.

Michael Yeargan’s chaste-white-mansion set, lit to chilled perfection by Joan Sullivan-Genthe, suggests a ghost house, a place where long-dead spirits are sequestered away from the world. The transparent walls that allow the stark, wintry woods to bleed into Vanessa’s loveless home and the snow that falls, surreally, into the great hall of the house just before Erika’s suicide attempt are pure genius. Martin Pakledinaz’s sumptuous, circa-1905 haute-couture costumes help create a tangible world for this story set in an unspecified “northern” country.

It’s gratifying that Washington Opera has lavished some of its finest, most lovingly detailed labors on a work that shows Barber and Menotti at their inspired best. Even those members of the theater crowd who haven’t yet braved the Great Divide between spoken drama and opera might want to sample Vanessa. Opera lovers, of course, shouldn’t hesitate—if only to remind themselves that those boys in the Florentine Camerata had a pretty good idea. CP