Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is big and challenging, with terrific arias for all the characters, yet it has been inexplicably overlooked by most major companies. Long Leaf Opera’s willingness to give it a shot proves they’re not afraid of breaking new ground. But they don’t seem too sure of what to build on the lot.

Barber created the title role of an aging and self-deluded beauty for Maria Callas, who took one look at the score, realized the character of Vanessa’s niece was going to be the real star, and turned the composer down. Eleanor Steber ended up with the part in the 1958 premiere and turned in a great performance, but Callas, with her fine dramatic instinct, was right–it was Rosalind Elias as Erika who stole the show. One of the difficulties of the opera is that the characters are not especially warm or likable–deliberately so, because librettist Gian Carlo Menotti’s goal was to evoke the bleak atmosphere of Isak Dineson’s Seven Gothic Tales.

The most solid performance Sunday afternoon at UNC’s Memorial Hall came from tenor Timothy Sparks as the young lover who seduces Erika and then courts Vanessa. Anatol is completely lacking in either malice or scruples; his goal is simply to marry one of these women. Vocally and dramatically the part calls for the singer to project a sense of ease, even carelessness (if the way you earn money is to marry it, you can’t afford to let anyone see you working hard), and Sparks nailed it with a combination of power and control, with a lovely head voice in the highest notes. Another good contribution came from Steven B. Jepson, bringing his warm, rich baritone to the role of the inept and alcoholic yet sympathetic doctor. Jodi Karem has a lovely voice and the musical sensibility to match, and her Erika was touching and bitter.

The rest of the cast–Catherine Alderman as Vanessa, Isobel Bartz as the old baroness, Thomas Link as the major-domo, and Nathan Jones as the footman–and the orchestra, under the direction of Benjamin Keaton, were fine if not exceptional. But Barber’s orchestration is rich and full, and the orchestra’s thin string section caused the music to suffer. The catch-22 was that it was difficult to hear Alderman over even this small orchestra except in the very top of her range. The set looked like an extension of the elegant Memorial Hall itself, the stage decorated in the traditional Swedish colors of pale gray-blue and white, punched by all shades of red–blood, rose, fiery–and with an icy, bare-branched winter scene visible through the windows.

The problem with this production was the inadequate stage direction. Some moments were just inexplicable. At the end, Erika orders the mirrors–which Vanessa had had veiled in the beginning and then uncovered once she felt loved–to be covered again. In Long Leaf’s production, the maids bend down, pick up the fabric that’s been folded up on the floor since the last act and proceed to carry out their new mistress’s orders. A question arises: Why doesn’t this well-appointed Scandinavian household have a linen chest? And the mirrors themselves–in the opera they’re practically another character, but here they were just sheets of plastic film in gold-colored frames. Would it have been so hard to get real ones? Sure, these are minor examples. But in art, details are never meaningless. A bit of thoughtful direction could have solved both problems and several others.

Twentieth-century opera can be a hard sell. I give Long Leaf props for even attempting this technically difficult work. Difficult, yes, but musically it’s so worth the effort. Erika’s melancholy foreshadowing aria “Must the winter come so soon” in the first act; Anatol’s self-revelatory “Love has a bitter core, Vanessa” in the second; and the final quintet, “To leave, to break,” with its quiet, staggered entrances, each character lost in his or her own private reverie, are as good and as moving as anything from the 18th or 19th century. Yet I couldn’t help contrasting this afternoon’s experience with one a few weeks ago at the Opera Company of North Carolina’s performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I left that night feeling as though I’d heard something alive, something that breathed and moved. I left Vanessa feeling like I’d been sitting in a stuffy room. Old doesn’t mean boring, and new doesn’t mean interesting. The only thing that counts is whether what’s happening on stage works both musically and dramatically. Long Leaf Opera is one of just two companies in the United States whose repertoire is exclusively operas originally written in English. That pretty much means works of the 20th century and later (except for Henry Purcell’s small jewel Dido and Aeneas of 1689).

If you want opera to excite your audience, you can’t just program a new piece and think your job is done. New works deserve just as much care and attention as the older repertoire–more, in fact, because they’re unfamiliar to most of the audience. Vanessa needed more pampering.