BARBER Vanessa • Leonard Slatkin, cond; Christine Brewer (Vanessa); Susan Graham (Erika); William Burden (Anatol) et al; BBC Singers and SO • CHANDOS CHSA 5032(2) (2 CDs: 122:09)
Since it is less than a year since my review of the Naxos recording of this opera appeared (see Fanfare 28:1) , I will restrict my comments about the work itself to a simple summary: Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, is one of the great American operas, and a masterpiece of the composer’s stylistic maturity. Once one comes to terms with Gian Carlo Menotti’s asinine libretto, one can allow oneself to become intoxicated by the irresistibly haunting lyricism of the music, which seems increasingly pervasive throughout the work as one becomes more familiar with it.
This new release marks the third complete recording of Vanessa, and each has its virtues. In addition to the Naxos release mentioned above, there is the recording, still available, made by the original Metropolitan Opera cast in 1958, shortly after the premiere. That performance, which featured Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Giorgio Tozzi in the leading roles, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, still sounds excellent. Not only was this a brilliant all-star rendition, but it was captured on a remarkably fine recording, which still sounds quite good today. The Naxos set was recorded in Kiev in 2002, with an American cast and a Ukrainian orchestra, conducted by Gil Rose. As I wrote in my review, the featured soloists are “hardly household names on the international circuit…. Yet a direct comparison of both recordings reveals the new Naxos release to hold its own surprisingly well. The cast members … fulfill the requirements of their roles with convincing passion, supported by considerable artistry…. 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.”
Placed in direct comparison, the new Chandos release provides what is undeniably the most fulfilling experience of the opera. Leonard Slatkin has already proven himself to be one of the most discerning and insightful interpreters of Barber’s music. While it is perhaps simplistic and fatuous to describe the main soloists here as “better” than those in the original production, they certainly have the benefit of familiarity with the opera and with those venerable performances, as well as the advantage of top-notch state-of-the-art audio reproduction (and this judgment is made without my having experienced its “Hybrid Multichannel SACD” features). Christine Brewer is luscious as Vanessa, Susan Graham is a limpid, vulnerable Erika, and William Burden is a seductively unctuous Anatol. As in Slatkin’s other Barber recordings, virtually every detail in the rich orchestral fabric is carefully shaped, its motifs interwoven with the motifs in the vocal lines, while the impact of the whole reflects Chandos’ customary combination of luxuriance and clarity.
Such a comparison of recordings results in a most fortuitous choice for the consumer: Listeners who know and love Vanessa need have no hesitation about acquiring the new, premium-priced Chandos release. On the other hand, those who may be favorably disposed to Barber’s music but somewhat hesitant to invest in a full-length opera are well-advised to take a chance on the Naxos release, at less than half the price of the Chandos. They will experience the work with the benefit of a modern recording, along with fine singers and rich, solid orchestral support. Other listeners, who may have an interest in Vanessa‘s performance history or in historical operatic performances in general, will be attracted to the RCA reissue of the original production, priced halfway between the other two.