‘Vanessa’ fits Kiri Te Kanawa to a T

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Kiri Te Kanawa

Nobody does it better! When it comes to playing countesses and the like, Kiri Te Kanawa is the one. The famous soprano, now in the later stage of her career, makes her first appearance with the Los Angeles Opera in the role of a baroness! She is the eponymous heroine in Samuel Barber’s opera, “Vanessa,” rarely performed and understandably so.

Although the story is no worse than many others, the music is elusive. (Perhaps it requires several hearings.)

The production at the Music Center is very entertaining, with fine sets and costumes and a talented cast. Based on a story by the Danish author, Isak Dinesen, the opera is set in some cold country that is never identified. A beautiful all-purpose salon with floor to ceiling windows and a curving staircase allows our players to enter and leave elegantly.

Baroness Vanessa, whose lover deserted her 20 years ago, is in such despair that she has covered the windows and mirrors and refuses all visitors. Her only companions, beside a bevy of servants, are her mother, who refuses to talk to her, and her young niece.

When Vanessa learns that her “Anatol” is returning to her, she is thrilled and eager to accept him. However, the Anatol who returns is not her lover but his son. Both aunt and niece fall in love with the stranger and thereby hangs the tale.

Dame Kiri is a commanding presence and wears the period costumes with amazing grace. Her wardrobe was designed Paul Brown, who was also responsible for the creative setting. At one point, our heroine wears a luscious maroon velvet gown with a matching hat that sits on her head like a Frisbee. Who else could get away with that?

The others in the cast are: Lucy Schaufer, excellent as the niece, Erika; Davis Evitts, delightful as a tipsy doctor; and John Matz, a remarkably good tenor, as the suave Anatol. It is interesting to note that Rosalind Elias, playing the dowager baroness, originated the role of Vanessa at the world premiere in 1958.

Simone Young brought out the romanticism of the score as she conducted the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra. Patrick Young did a superb job as the director. For fans of Gothic, “Vanessa” has the right stuff.