Edward Graves with “Vanessa’s” Nicole Heaston | Photo by William Struhs, Spoleto Festival USA.

The opera of this year’s Spoleto Festival USA is Vanessa, an existential drama that follows its titular character through a harrowing journey of love, longing and loss. It’s historically important to the festival, written by Samuel Barber with a libretto by his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti, the founder of Spoleto. Menotti directed the work at the second festival in 1978, a performance which helped to put the arts celebration on the world map. 

Forty-five years later, the work is reprised by director Rodula Gaitanou, conductor Timothy Myers and scenic and costume designer Cordelia Chisholm. 

“It is really powerful to think that when the piece was last produced at Spoleto Festival, Menotti himself was the stage director,” said Myers, “and that now Rodula Gaitanou, her team and I have the honor of bringing this opera to life here again.”

Myers and Gaitanou previously worked together in 2016 to present Vanessa at Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland. Myers said, “even though this is my fourth time with the opera, I am discovering things anew. A lot of the things are very similar, but the process itself is entirely fresh… Rodula and I came into it treating it as if we were doing it for the first time.”

He said the work is timeless for its subject matter: a deep dive into the human condition. The stage design, the orchestral and vocal performances all come together to tell a deeply psychological story. 

“Fortunately, we have a brilliant cast of singing actors who are able to really do this.”

Rising operatic superstar Nicole Heaston takes on the role of Vanessa, a woman tucked away in a countryside mansion, waiting 20 years for the return of her lover, who is not portrayed on stage. His son shows up instead and a love triangle ensues between him, Vanessa and her niece, Erika.

“But what is different about a production in 2023 versus 1978 is the context of the audience,” Myers said. “This production is one that I would say is updated, but not in some sort of modernist way… What matters is that we are telling this story now in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2023, and to the audience here.”

Barber won the Pulitzer Prize for Vanessa’s lyrical score, which explores the depths of the characters’ psyches. Myers, who directs the orchestra and five singers, said the music becomes a character of its own with its sweeping, neo-romantic melodies. 

“Barber was a brilliant orchestrator, and because of that, the orchestra really provides subtext in the storytelling. For example, maybe the orchestra is telling us something that the character themself doesn’t quite understand or isn’t saying.”

The opera is set in an aristocratic country house in a northern European country, though the specifics of setting are not explicitly defined. Myers said in this production, Gaitanou and Chisholm imagined a setting reminiscent of the Hudson Valley of New York. 

Nicole Heaston and Zoie Reams in “Vanessa” | Photo by William Struhs, Spoleto Festival USA.

“Of course, these aren’t super-defined places, it’s more general. What we do know about the physical setting is that it’s remote and it’s cold; it’s a very sheltered place, and the house has not been open to outsiders for 20 years. Those specific things are important to telling the story, and Cordelia Chisholm’s design does that very beautifully.”

The physical isolation represented by the stage design assists to tell the story of Vanessa’s profound psychological isolation, and “Barber does the same thing musically,” Myers said.

“In the beginning, there’s a lot of tension in the house. Vanessa’s first aria starts with this very constricted range that indicates wanting to break free and break out of something, but it’s very confined and claustrophobic. And this is another brilliant thing about Rodula’s direction,” he said, “she understands the music very deeply and how that ties indelibly into the storytelling itself.”

This performance marks the fifth time Vanessa will be shown in the United States in over 20 years. 

“This is an opportunity for audience members to experience something that they’re not going to have other opportunities to experience,” Myers said. 

“Great operas illuminate the human condition and create an emotional jungle gym for the audience, a place where they are able to see parts of themselves. And, in addition to it being a really compelling physical production, a wonderful cast, chorus, orchestra and production team, is this something that is really special, something that is bespoke for the Charleston audience.”

IF YOU PLAN TO GO:  7 p.m. May 27 and 29; and June 6; 7:30 p.m. June 10.  Remaining tickets are $113 to $173. 

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