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Classical 101

Samuel Barber's Centennial: Vanessa

THREE AUDIO PIECES, ALL MUSIC Composer Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania on March 10, 1910. He died in New York in 1981. From the time he was a young man, Barber was at the forefront of American music. His First Essay for Orchestra impressed Arturo Toscanini, who performed the work with the NBC Symphony. There was no more important an imprimatur for a young composer. Toscanini  encouraged Barber to adapt a part of his String Quartet into what became the Adagio for Strings. That work alone was enough to get Barber into music's Valhalla, but lovely as it is the Adagio is not the whole story.

How Barber Came to Write Vanessa

In 1955 Samuel Barber was commissioned to write a new opera for the Metropolitan Opera. Barber's life partner, composer Gian-Carlo Menotti came up with an original libretto (some say inspired by Isaak Dinesen) about a lovely baroness living in isolation in a "northern country," attended only by her niece and her mother (who will not speak to her) after having been jilted by her lover 20 years earlier. The lover's return is expected as the opera begins, but it his son who arrives. The opera was called Vanessa - and it had a long gestation. Barber was the nephew of the great American contralto Louise Homer (1874-1947). She and her husband, the composer Sidney Homer had mentored the younger man, but they were long gone by the mid 1950s. Still, their influence led Barber to an appreciation of the voice and a great skill in writing for singers. He himself was a fine baritone and recorded one of his own work, Dover Beach. Vanessa takes up with her the son of her deceased betrothed, Anatol, despite the younger man's fling with Erika, Vanessa' niece. Erika miscarries, Anatol and Vanessa are married and leave for an extended honeymoon. "Lock the gates," Erika tells the footmen at the opera's end. "Cover the windows and the mirrors. From now on, I will see no one." So Erika takes over the life Vanessa had lived before we met her. End of story. The libretto was considered narcissistic.  It was hard to feel much sympathy for the tile character who was beautiful and wealthy, and who subjected her elderly mother and a lovely younger woman into a life of solitude.

Casting for Vanessa

Casting proved problematic. All agreed that the beautiful young mezzo from Lowell, Massachusetts, Rosalind Elias, would be a perfect Erika, and she owned the role. To her went the  hit tune, Must the Winter Come So Soon? heard at the beginning of the opera: [audio:winter.mp3] Anatol arrives in the storm. The wrong Anatol, but Vanessa doesn't know that yet. "Unless you still love me, I do not want you to see my face, Anatol".  This is Eleanor Steber, the first Vanessa, with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos: [audio:do-not-utter.mp3] Eleanor Steber was not the first choice for Vanessa. Maria Callas was, but La divina heard the score and told Barber, "The younger girl has the best part, and I must do a title role!"  Next up came soprano Sena Jurinac, who agreed, but cancelled six weeks before the premiere.  Steber was third choice.  She was in town and she worked cheap.  It was silly to negate Eleanor Steber.  She was (still) beautiful but aging, with a gleaming, wonderful voice and there was no better musician in the business. Steber was no stranger to Barber's music, since she had both commissioned and premiered his glorious Knoxville: Summer of 1915 ten years earlier. But the Met's director, Rudolph Bing  preferred European artists, and Steber was known to be struggling with alcoholism (as Barber was) . No matter. Eleanor Steber learned the part in three weeks. If she had crib notes hidden on stage for the premiere on January 15, 1958,  it didn't keep her from turning in a fine performance. Here's part of the Quintet, To Leave, to break, to weep and remember from the end of the opera. Vanessa and Anatol are leaving on their honeymoon, perhaps never to return. Erika has shut down. She will go on, but alone. "Let me look around once more" sings Vanessa. "Who knows when I shall see this old house again?" [audio:to-leave.mp3] Eleanor Steber: Vanessa; Rosalind Elias: Erika; Nicolai Gedda: Anatol; Giorgio Tozzi: The Doctor; Regina Resnik: The Old Baroness. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. The day after the premiere, critic Max deSchauensee had this to say in The Philadelphia Bulletin "A brilliant audience which crowded the vast spaces of the Metropolitan to capacity, singled out the principals for repeated applause and gave the composer and his associates 17 calls at the final curtain...Mr. Barber has written a sophisticated score with plenty of vocal opportunities for the singers.  The preludes which anticipated the scenes were particularly evocative.  There were solos for Eleanor Steber and duets between the heroine and tenor Nicola Gedda, excellent in the role of the volatile Anatol.  Strong personal successes were obtained by Rosalind Elias, as the forsaken Erika, and by Giorgio Tozzi as the kindly but bibulous family doctor....Comments in the lobby during intermission would indicate that the opera struck its mark with many in the audience.  General sentiments applauded the fine workmanship of the score and rejoiced in the fact that an American opera, long overdue, had made its appearance at our principal opera house." Vanessa was given a dozen performances with the same cast to 1959, and was revived in 1965, with Mary Costa replacing Eleanor Steber. The opera never caught on at the Met. At first hearing it's hard to feel for the characters and the music is either too sharp or too sentimental. But Vanessa bears repeated listening. It grows on one. In recent years, long after Barber's death, Vanessa has finally caught on, with productions in St. Louis, Spoleto, Washington DC, Bloomington, London (with Christine Brewer and Susan Graham) and at the New York City Opera, with Lauren Flanigan. Renee Fleming is an obvious casting choice for a Met revival, perhaps with Joyce DiDonato and Eric Cutler. At age fifty-two, Barber and Menotti's somewhat faded Baroness and her unhappy niece are here to stay, an American opera no longer young but finally, moving.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.