BARBER Vanessa

BARBER Vanessa • Gil Rose, cond; Ellen Chickering (Vanessa); Andrea Matthews (Erika); Ray Bauwens (Anatol) et al; National SO of Ukraine • NAXOS 8.669140-41 (2 CDs: 120:59)

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa is one of the greatest American operas, and a masterpiece of the composer’s maturity. By this time (1957) Barber’s compositional language had evolved into an eloquent vehicle for reflecting the decadent implications of the romantic world-view. The opera offers a rich and sensuous blend of Puccinian romantic passion and Straussian luxuriance of orchestral texture, intensified by the greater tonal freedom and more dissonant harmony available to the 20th-century composer. Vanessa’s entire fabric is interwoven with a variety of motifs that plant elusive melodic threads in one’s mind, leaving one yearning to hear it again.

The opera’s only serious weakness is the ludicrous libretto written by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, the composer’s longtime companion. The ultra-romantic story takes place “at Vanessa’s country house in a northern country, the year about 1905.” There she lives an isolated life with her niece Erika and her mother, the Old Baroness, who will not speak to her. As the opera opens, the once-beautiful Vanessa awaits the imminent arrival of her beloved Anatol, whom she has not seen in twenty years. However, the man who arrives presently is not her long-awaited love, but his son, also named Anatol. Both Vanessa and Erika are drawn to the charming but opportunistic stranger, who proceeds to seduce them both, impregnating Erika, while offering his hand in marriage to each of them in turn. Realizing the shallowness of his feelings, Erika rejects him and aborts the baby; Vanessa accepts his offer and departs with him for Paris, leaving Erika alone in the house with the Old Baroness, who now refuses to speak to her grand-daughter. 

Menotti carefully tailored his libretto to the composer’s tastes, making “inside” references to Barber’s special interests, from fine food and wine to the plays of Chekhov, and cited as inspiration for his story the literary works of Isak Dinesen, which Barber enjoyed. But there is a fatal incongruity between the shallow, foolish main characters and the glorious music through which they express their foolishness, making it difficult to empathize with them and their plights. In fact, two of the opera’s most haunting and deeply moving arias are those sung by Anatol in his respective attempts to win over each of the two women. Nevertheless, as has always been the case, the music wins out: Once one has snickered sufficiently at the absurdity of the libretto, one surrenders oneself to the music; by the time the justly acclaimed concluding canonic quintet comes to an end, one has become intoxicated enough to find ways to rationalize or at least accommodate the fatuity of the story.

Vanessa’s triumphant premiere by the Metropolitan Opera Company was hailed by critics and listeners, earning for the work the 1958 Pulitzer Prize in music. It was recorded the same year by the original cast, featuring Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Nicolai Gedda, and conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Richard Conrad, who plays the role of the Old Doctor on this new recording, wrote the program notes, and seems to have been its overall artistic director, exclaimed about the original recording, “It is difficult to believe that every note was not tailored to [Steber’s] soaring soprano.” That recording has been reissued on CD and is (to the best of my knowledge) currently in print. Beautifully sung and recorded, that performance still—nearly half a century later—sounds stupendous.

So what can one say about this new performance? Sopranos Ellen Chickering and Andrea Matthews and tenor Ray Bauwens are heard frequently in operas, concerts, and recitals in the New England area. Highly praised by local critics, they are, however, hardly household names on the international circuit. Initially relying on my memory of the earlier recording, I was about to damn the new entry with faint praise. Yet a direct comparison of both recordings reveals the new Naxos release to hold its own surprisingly well. The cast members, especially tenor Bauwens as Anatol, fulfill the requirements of their roles with convincing passion, supported by considerable artistry. And placing the 2002 National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine alongside the 1958 Metropolitan Opera Orchestra could easily inspire an entire study of the drastic rise in orchestral proficiency that has occurred throughout the world during recent decades—an elevation of standards that has profoundly altered—and continues to alter—the classical recording industry in ways that have yet to be fully grasped. The new recording itself, of course, boasts somewhat greater richness and immediacy, though my praise for the sound quality of the older recording is not exaggerated. The fact that the Naxos set is about 30% less expensive than the RCA original may tempt more skeptical, hesitant consumers to take the risk, while the publicity attending the new release may bring the opera to the attention of younger listeners not aware of its existence. For any of these reasons it serves a useful purpose and will leave few disappointed.