Samuel Barber’s gothic Vanessa was an ambitious opera to open Long Leaf Opera’s eighth season in its new home, Memorial Hall, on the University of North Carolina campus. Artistic Director Randolph Umberger announced this news from the stage. The company will change its performance pattern to that of an opera festival beginning in June 2007. He said that their rehearsals had been haunted by both his and Music Director Benjamin Keaton’s fond memories of their individual early experiences of working in the hall some four decades ago.

Barber was advised by his uncle, composer Sidney Homer, to choose opera “plots … which are most true to life and could most easily happen.” After considering a number of American writers, ranging from James Agee to Thornton Wilder, to write a libretto, Barber chose his friend and life-long companion, established opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti. Eschewing realism, they settled instead for the atmosphere but not the details of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales.

At the beginning of Barber’s opera, Vanessa is a once-great beauty who has been waiting some twenty years for the return of the great love of her life, Anatol. Her lover having died, his son, also called Anatol, arrives to claim his place. His family having fallen down in the world, he is forced to “drink other people’s wine.” The gigolo seduces Vanessa’s niece, Erika, the night of his arrival, resulting in her pregnancy. Vanessa and Anatol develop a relationship leading to marriage based upon their mutual shallow level of love and self-awareness. Erika rejects Anatol for his lack of emotional depth, has a miscarriage, and ends the opera as an even more forlorn recluse than Vanessa. This “gothic” plot is a witch’s brew, part upper-class drawing room drama and part the essence of Chekov plots such as The Cherry Orchard, set to tonal music spiced with eclectic use of dissonance.

A crying need of the eight-year old company has been a hall with good acoustics and a real opera pit. Vastly improved balance between the singers and the orchestra was immediately apparent over the often-trying efforts of the past. The singers could always be heard. However its orchestral component remains the opera company’s Achilles’ heel. This was the least bad orchestral playing that I have heard from them, but it was no blessing. While former chaotic efforts had given me headaches, this “improved” effort still far short of adequate.

Within an easy daytrip from the Triangle, Opera Carolina in Charlotte and the Virginia Opera in Richmond present world-class performances with larger and fully professional orchestras that are expertly conducted. Both companies present American works in addition to Puccini and Verdi box office certainties. Charlotte has presented important Regional Southern premieres of Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree and Danielpour’s Margaret Garner. Virginia will present Floyd’s classic Susannah in November. Both the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute in Winston-Salem and UNC Greensboro’s Opera Theater present significant American works on a high artistic level accompanied by far more polished playing by large student orchestras. Unless Long Leaf Opera radically improves its orchestra, how can they expect patrons to ever buy more than a first time ticket?

Long Leaf Opera fielded an ensemble cast with good voices and clear diction. Vanessa, sung by soprano Catherine Alderman, came across as too young compared to the production’s Erika. Alderman’s fast vibrato might not be to everyone’s taste but she projected her words clearly and matched her Anatol as their lines soared in duets. Perhaps her director wanted to stress the rejuvenating effects of love, but her Act II cavorting with Anatol seemed too adolescent. Mezzo-soprano Jodi Karem conveyed Erika’s complex mixture of idealism, inhibitions, and tortured anguish with a firmly focused voice. Mezzo-soprano Isobel Bartz excelled in the largely acting demands of the role of the Baroness, Vanessa’s mother and Erika’s grandmother. Her solo and ensemble singing was quite good.

Tenor Timothy W. Sparks, frequently heard in Triangle choral performances, looked too old for the role of Anatol in the context of this production’s cast. Otherwise, his firmly shaped voice and careful attention to dynamics and words were most welcome. His quiet singing in Act II was excellent. Baritone Steven B. Jepson was delightful in the role of the Old Doctor, hilarious in his great comic drunk scene in Act II and touching in his bittersweet reflections upon saying goodbye in Act III. Thomas Link made much of the role of the Nicholas, The Major Domo. His caressing of ladies’ furs and poignant lamenting of women beyond his social station was well done. All the lead cast blended well in the quintet in the finale of Act III.

The unit set functioned well. In Act I and Act III, it was a large room with French windows through which conifers loaded with snow are seen. A heavy snowstorm was a nice effect that was marred by an extraordinarily noisy Styrofoam blower. Lighting, designed by John I. Thomas, worked well over-all but occasional spotlighting of soloists seemed old-fashioned.

The staging of the off-stage party was successful and cover singers and extras were good.