Barber - Vanessa, April 28, 30, May 3, 5, and 7, 2011. Royal Theatre, Victoria, BC

Operas > Vanessa     Music     Synopsis     Composer


Music by Samuel Barber.  Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti

Synopsis for Pacific Opera Victoria's Production

April 28, May 3, 5, and 7, 2011, at 8 pm
Matinée April 30 at 3 pm

The opera is set around 1905, in a luxurious home in a snowy, unnamed northern country. All the mirrors are covered. Three generations of women share the house: Vanessa, her niece Erika, and her mother, the Baroness, who has not spoken to Vanessa for many years.

Act 1, Scene 1

An important guest is expected – Vanessa's lover of 20 years ago. As Erika gives the major-domo instructions, Vanessa frets over every detail, from the French menu to the flowers and the necessity of keeping the bell at the gate ringing in case the sleigh is lost in the storm.

When the visitor arrives, Vanessa insists on meeting him alone. She gives him no chance to speak, but pours out the emotions of 20 years of waiting to the man standing in the shadows. She finishes with an ultimatum: If you do not love me, I shall ask you to leave my house this very night. He handles the situation with considerable aplomb, responding Yes, I believe I shall love you. Horrified to find a stranger before her, Vanessa staggers out, leaving Erika to deal with the visitor.

The young man explains that he is Anatol, the son of Vanessa's old lover, who has died. He has come to see the woman whom his mother hated and his father longed for. Erika and Anatol dine together.

Act 1, Scene 2

A month later Erika confesses to her grandmother that she is passionately in love with Anatol, who seduced her the night of his arrival. Although he has offered to marry her, she senses he is incapable of real love. She has noticed that Vanessa too is in love with him.

Vanessa and Anatol return from skating as the doctor arrives. After Vanessa announces that she will unveil the mirrors and portraits and hold a grand ball, she and the doctor try to teach Anatol to dance. When the men go out into the garden, Vanessa confides to Erika that Anatol has hinted at marriage. The Baroness urges Erika to speak out if she wants Anatol.

When Erika confronts Anatol about his conversation with Vanessa, he mockingly assures her he's still willing to marry her for the pleasure of it, and take her off to Paris and Rome, but that eternal love is out of the question. Everyone departs for church, leaving Erika alone. Watched over by a wild woodland spirit, she examines herself in a mirror. Finally she declares that her answer is no – Vanessa can have Anatol.

Act 1, Scene 3

At Vanessa's New Year's Eve party, the doctor, a little tipsy, remarks how an attractive woman can make him lose his mind. He has been chosen to announce the engagement of Vanessa and Anatol. Vanessa sends him upstairs to fetch Erika and the Baroness. When she wonders to Anatol why Erika refuses to join the festivities, he tells her not to search into the past lest she find only lies.

As the doctor makes the happy announcement, Erika, weak and pale, appears at the top of the stairs, then clutches her stomach and faints. While the guests toast the couple, the major-domo tries to help Erika, but she asks to be left alone and slips out into the cold. The baroness sees her running toward the lake and raises the alarm.


Act 2, Scene 1

The next morning Anatol and the searchers find Erika on the path to the lake and bring her back, unconscious. Mystified, Vanessa asks Anatol why Erika acted so desperately. Demanding the truth, she asks whether Erika loves him. He swears she does not, and Vanessa begs him to take her away, to help her take flight from the house; he agrees, saying, Only the mad, only the blind can fly.

Erika tells her grandmother that she was pregnant and that her child will not be born. The baroness gets up and, without another word to Erika, leaves the room.

Act 2, Scene 2

Two weeks later, Anatol and Vanessa have married and are preparing to leave for Paris. The doctor reminisces about Vanessa's childhood. Vanessa tells Erika she has willed her the house, but urges her not to tell Anatol. When Vanessa asks Erika for the truth of what happened, Erika says only that she loved someone who didn't love her – and swears it was not Anatol.

As Anatol reminds Erika that he once thought she would be the one with whom he would leave, she urges him to make Vanessa happy. The women, Anatol, and the doctor sing a farewell about the elusiveness of love.
To leave, to break, to find, to keep, to stay, to wait;
to hope, to dream, to weep and remember.
To love is all of this and none of it is love.
The light is not the sun nor the tide the moon.

When Vanessa and Anatol have left, Erika calls out his name in anguish. She then orders the mirrors in the house to be covered again and the gate locked. As she sits by her silent grandmother, guarded by the woodland spirit, she says, Now it is my turn to wait.

Maureen Woodall


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