Music by Samuel Barber
Libretto by Gian Carlo Menotti
Twenty years after her affair with a married man, Vanessa is shut away like a chrysalis, holding at bay the passage of time and beauty. When her lover's son seeks out the woman who so haunted his childhood home, Vanessa, her niece Erika, and the unscrupulous, charming Anatol plunge into a fatal love triangle.
Set in a snowy, endless winter, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's haunting northern landscapes,Vanessa is a study of obsessive love that plays out with the inexorable power of a Greek tragedy.
Not many people know of Samuel Barber's opera Vanessa. Yet it is one of the 20th century's most accessible and haunting operas and was a hit with audiences when it premiered in 1958 at the Metropolitan Opera. It also won Barber the Pulitzer Prize for music.
In English with English Surtitles
Just before the premiere of Vanessa, Barber pointed out that it wasn't actually his first opera:
At nine I wrote my first opera, still in manuscript. I called it The Rose Tree. The libretto was by our cook, Annie Sullivan Brosius Noble. She had been imported from Ireland by my grandmother . . . Once when my mother asked her what we were having for dessert she answered, "Madam, a little something of my own. It is called a Bird's-Eye View of Death." (For the record, it was left-over cake with varying sauces.) Quick to pounce on literary talent – and miraculously close to home, at that – I asked her to write the text for me. She complied according to her moods, evasive or enthusiastic, like all librettists.
The hero was a tenor on vacation from the Metropolitan Opera Company who fell in love with a soprano.
This opera did not progress beyond Act I, not because the cook left, for they didn't leave in those days. Annie died.
The jibe at librettists came from experience. Barber had considered a number of librettists for Vanessa, including Thornton Wilder and Dylan Thomas, But eventually his companion and fellow composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, who had already written both words and music for half a dozen operas, volunteered. It was not the easiest collaboration, as Barber recalled:
I think he wondered whether I really would do it, and I know I wondered whether I really could. I remembered what Poulenc said when he was starting his first opera: "Just throw yourself in!" It was decided that Menotti would write the first scene and we would see how that turned out. . . . By late summer the scene was finished . . . Now utterly engrossed, I asked him for more words in a hurry, to go full steam ahead.
Here was the beginning of a new trial of patience! He explained that I would have to wait until January, as he must leave for New York to produce The Saint of Bleecker Street. This was at the point in my opera when, after Vanessa's aria, Anatol first appears, silhouetted in semi-darkness in the doorway. She turns to him and screams. He remains standing.
And standing there in that drafty doorway in a northern country in deep winter, Anatol remained for four months until January. Once again my errant librettist asked for a reprieve, for now the Saint was to be done at La Scala. Not to mention the trials of Anatol (for no tenor must ever stand in a draft, even for a second), this composer was not fit to live with that winter. He fled to Greece and reorchestrated his Medea. And Anatol stood.
When, the next spring, Menotti was at last free, I refused to write a note until the complete libretto was finished – a technique Menotti himself does not use. Doubly endowed, he has heretofore been in the privileged position of being both librettist and composer and could always jump to the defense of the underdog, as it were, whichever it was. My tactic succeeded brilliantly: it made him so nervous that he sat on a rock by the Mediterranean every morning until, by summer's end, what I think is perhaps the finest and most chiseled of his libretti was finished. . . .
All Barber now had to do, besides write the music, was choose a name for his heroine – It came from a book I found in the Holliday Bookshop: How to Name Your Child!
Although the story is original, some of Vanessa's intense romantic atmosphere was inspired by Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (pseudonym of the Danish writer Karen Blixen) – a set of singular stories set among the aristocracy. These startling psychological portraits are marked by their macabre sophistication, a whiff of eroticism and madness, formidable female characters, and brilliant, idiosyncratic writing.
In describing the story and the characters, Menotti said,
This is the story of two women, Vanessa and Erika, caught in the central dilemma which faces every human being: whether to fight for one's ideals to the point of shutting oneself off from reality, or compromise with what life has to offer, even lying to oneself for the mere sake of living. Like a sullen Greek chorus, a third woman (the old Grandmother) condemns by her very silence the refusal first of Vanessa, then of Erika, to accept the bitter truth that life offers no solution except its own inherent struggle. When Vanessa, in her final eagerness to embrace life, realizes this truth, it is perhaps too late.
The role of Vanessa was intended to be a star turn for the great soprano Maria Callas. Barber invited the diva to his home to hear him sing and play the music (she brought along an entourage of husband, two record company representatives, secretary, and dog).
There are several theories as why Callas turned down the role. She had never sung opera in English. Another story is that she lost her appetite for the role as soon as Barber began the opening scene in which Vanessa gives orders about the dinner menu; Callas is said to have complained, How can I possibly sing a role that begins with the words 'too many sauces'?
It is equally likely that she feared being upstaged by the mezzo. As Barber put it, with enormous delicacy, Being very astute, she noticed certain things about the libretto which gave a little too much importance to the mezzo-soprano, the role of Erika, which is a very strong role.
Callas is also said to have insisted that she couldn't possibly be expected to fall in love with a man who had already slept with the mezzo soprano.
Callas had a point: although Vanessa walks off with both the man and the title credit, the role of Erika is in every way as compelling, and this became clear at the opening. The young mezzo Rosalind Elias was cast as Erika and indeed nearly stole the show. The role of Vanessa was ultimately performed by the American soprano Eleanor Steber who filled in after Sena Jurinac cancelled on short notice. Steber was a sensation. Tenor Nicolai Gedda, in his debut season at the Met, played Anatol.
The opera premiered on January 15, 1958 to sold out houses and rapturous reviews. It was called the best US opera yet staged at the Metropolitan (of 19 American operas previously produced at the Met) and a major contribution to the international repertory. The New Yorker gushed that Vanessa was the finest and most truly 'operatic' opera ever written by an American . . . one of the most impressive things . . . to appear anywhere since Richard Strauss's more vigorous days.
The conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos said of it,
The whole texture of Vanessa is highly theatrical and dramatic, full of orchestral surprises and climaxes, but always at the service of the stage, as any real opera should be . . . At last, an American grand opera!
Vanessa won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize and, in August of the same year, the European premiere was produced in Salzburg – the first American opera at the festival, and the first in Salzburg's history to be sung in English. But the more avant-garde European critics criticized the opera as chromaticized Puccini, plus a few ounces of Strauss, Wagner and Tchaikovsky with a shot of Debussy.
As critic Anthony Tommasini explains,
Contemporary-music hard-liners . . . dismissed Barber as a hopeless conservative, shameless neo-Romantic and lushly tonal panderer, unlike the tough-guy modernists who claimed the intellectual high ground during that polemical period. Enough of that attitude took hold in America to consign "Vanessa" to the category of hokey midcentury operas not worth bothering about.
Barber was, in the words of his editor Paul Wittke, a maverick romantic lyricist in a turbulent age – and until enough time passed for a more balanced assessment, the opera was rarely remounted. But now it's revived more frequently, and, as New York Times critic Peter Davis says,
Like so many of those domestic dramas custom made for Hollywood's old screen divas, "Vanessa" can also be devilishly effective. There are few dull stretches in the score; the vocal writing has a lyrical consistency that one seldom hears in new operas these days; the musical and dramatic pacing is amazingly assured; and the final 20 minutes – that glorious quintet, similar in tone and wholly comparable to the famous trio in Strauss's "Rosenkavalier" – are as inspired as anything in American opera.