BARBER Vanessa & Interview with Barber

by Walter Simmons



BARBER Vanessa • Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond; Eleanor Steber (Vanessa); Rosalind Elias (Erika); Nicolai Gedda (Anatol) et al; Ch of the Vienna State Opera; Vienna Philharmonic • ORFEO C653 0621, mono/AAD (2 CDs: 126:12) Live Broadcast: Salzburg Festival 8/16/58
& Interview with Barber (in German and English)

This recent release is an imperative acquisition for all those historically-minded collectors who have boundless interest in Samuel Barber and his opera Vanessa. That constituency is no doubt aware that this Pulitzer Prize-winning work enjoyed a successful premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in January, 1958, in a co-production with the Salzburg Festival, featuring Eleanor Steber, Rosalind Elias, and Nicolai Gedda in the leading roles. The opera was then presented in Salzburg in August of that year, with essentially the same cast. The only significant replacements were Ira Malaniuk instead of Regina Resnik as The Old Baroness, and the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Philharmonic instead of the Met equivalents. The Salzburg performance was well received by the public, but the opera was trashed brutally by the European critics, under the sway of haughty, elitist notions of “artistic progress”—a self-congratulatory posture that was dominating Europe at the time, but hadn’t quite taken hold as yet in the United States. Even Mitropoulos’s intense advocacy of the work was held suspect, as ulterior motives were sought. 

Today Vanessa is recognized by most enthusiasts of American opera as one of its masterpieces, and no one who professes an interest in the genre or who is receptive to Barber’s music in general should remain ignorant of it. Performed with increasing frequency these days (I am looking forward to tonight’s presentation by the New York City Opera), the work is available in a number of fine recordings, each potentially attractive to a different sub-group of listeners: There is the magnificent Metropolitan Opera version, recorded shortly after the premiere, and re-issued on an RCA compact disc set that is still, I believe, available; a perfectly adequate, budget-priced recording on Naxos, featuring excellent if little-known soloists; and a stupendous full-priced modern recording on Chandos, featuring Christine Brewer, Susan Graham, and William Burden in the leading roles, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Chorus and Orchestra. (Reviews of each of these can be found in the Fanfare archives at www.Fanfaremag.com or on my own Web site at www.Walter-Simmons.com.) So that leaves this latest release for the constituency noted in the first sentence of this review. 

As a recording derived from the broadcast of a live event that took place some fifty years ago, the sound quality is quite good—better than one might expect; but it cannot pretend to rival the studio recording made several months earlier by the same principals. Are there any significant virtues to recommend this Salzburg document? Well, perhaps there is a moment or two, e.g., Steber’s “Do Not Utter a Word,” that some might find more thrillingly immediate as captured here in vivo. Beyond that, a most peculiar intermission interview with the composer is included, conducted by “Dr. Heinzheimer” (presumably Hans, erstwhile editorial director of Barber’s publisher, G. Schirmer), presented in both German and English. The interview is amusingly stilted, as Barber’s predictable responses to Heinzheimer’s routine questions were obviously written in advance, then translated into German, and delivered timorously by the composer in both languages. The other bonus is a generously detailed program note by Gottfried Kraus, which includes an extensive and most revealing excerpt from a contemporaneous review by the leading Viennese critic Heinrich Kralik. What is so fascinating is the patronizing way Kralik attempted to defend the work, by insisting that there is some value to an opera “for the audience, not for the literary few.” He argued on behalf of “appealing works that can hold their own for a few years ….” and felt that Vanessa “constitutes a more than acceptable and, indeed, a successful example of what I mean.” 

There are many ironies here. For example, instead of “holding [its] own for a few years,” Vanessa has been growing increasingly popular with the passage of time, and today is produced with relative frequency. Furthermore, though the work reminded initial audiences of Puccini and Strauss, the knowledgeable listener today knows that the composer it resembles more than anyone else is Samuel Barber—specifically those later (post-1950) works that display his neo-romantic expression at full maturity. (When will people learn that new music rooted in a tradition will upon initial acquaintance inevitably resemble other works from that tradition; it takes some familiarity before most listeners are able to grasp such a work’s own identity.) An additional irony is that despite Vanessa’s undeniable connection to the late-romantic tradition, there are still many operagoers today who find the work to be “dissonant” and borderline “atonal,” requiring some patience and persistence before its virtually uninterrupted lyricism blossoms and becomes readily apparent. This is a factor, often-overlooked, that makes the acceptance of a new opera a little more complicated than simply a matter of “giving them pretty melodies;” even many neo-romantic operas—derided by elitist critics as “pandering”—nevertheless require some familiarity before their presumed “accessibility” is apparent to the typical operagoer. It is this phenomenon, I believe, that is responsible for the near-half-century it has taken for Vanessa to really take hold. (Menotti’s preposterously shallow and foolish libretto bears some responsibility as well, but, in truth, it is the music—not the libretto—that makes or breaks an opera.) And it is those listeners who have “lived with” Vanessa for decades who have finally brought it to the brink of repertoire status.