BARBER: Vanessa.

BARBER: Vanessa. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting; Eleanor Steber, soprano (Vanessa); Rosalind Elias, mezzo-soprano (Erika); Nicolai Gedda, tenor (Anatol); Regina Resnik, mezzo-soprano (Old Baroness); Giorgio Tozzi, bass (Old Doctor); Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Recorded in 1958. RCA VICTOR GOLD SEAL 7899-2RG [ADD]; two discs: 53:26, 60:42. Produced by Richard Mohr and John Pfeiffer.

Vanessa is a major contribution to the international operatic repertory. . . . Mr. Barber’s mastery of the operatic language is remarkable and second to none now active on the Salzburg-Milan axis. . . . His vocal writing is impeccable and his handling of the orchestra virtuoso to a Straussian degree. Paul Henry Lang,New York Herald Tribune, 1958.

Never does Barber fail in the climaxes and seldom in the interim. The almost ‘leitmotif’ approach to Act 1 grows in stature in each act until it shreds the emotions in the Quintet of Act IV, which can be referred to as nothing short of a work of genius. William Olsen, New Records, 1958.

[Vanessa] has all the characteristics that opera goers profess to yearn for todayabundant melody, luxuriant orchestration, an integrated thematic structure and above all an utterly idiomatic approach to vocal writing. Shirley Fleming,High Fidelity/Musical America, 1978.

Barber’s music provides an unleashing of lush, rich, varied melody, which simultaneously conveys inner stirrings and the outward expression that either embellishes them or masks them behind a facade. Thomas P. Lanier, Opera News, 1979.

During the past decade Samuel Barber’s relatively small canon of works (some forty-eight opus numbers) has been steadily emerging as the most enduring body of music to come from the pen of a “serious” American composer. Therefore, while this recording of Vanessa has been more or less available in various LP incarnations for more than thirty years, its reissue on compact disc will presumably prompt a fresh generation of listeners-especially those who have made the recording of the once-anathematized Anthony and Cleopatra the posthumous success it has become-to make its acquaintance.

Vanessa was Barber’s eagerly awaited first opera, composed in 1957, long after the success of many shorter vocal works had created the expectation that his talent was ideally suited to music drama. The composer himself, never comfortable with the public pressure his eminence entailed, hesitated for a long time before undertaking such a major task, reportedly insisting that he hadn’t encountered a suitable libretto. Finally, this hurdle was overcome by Barber’s long-time companion, Gian Carlo Menotti, who combined his intimate understanding of Barber’s personality with his extensive experience as a composer of operas, to create a libretto designed specifically to fit Barber’s temperament. The work that resulted from this collaboration was produced in 1958 by the Metropolitan Opera Company, with essentially the same cast as that featured here, and subsequently at the Salzburg Festival in Europe. Vanessa delighted audiences-both European and Americanfrom the outset, and was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize in music, although it was trashed by European — especially German — critics, who condemned it for not being what a contemporary American opera “should be.”

From today’s vantage point, Vanessa is a characteristic work of Barber’s stylistic maturity at its most fluent and eloquent, as well as one of his most romantic scores. Its language freely embraces elements reminiscent of Puccini, Strauss, and Mahler, yet those who are truly familiar with the composer’s works (as few were at the time of the opera’s premiere) will find it unmistakable as a work of Barber’s, from first note to last. As implied by one of the commentators quoted above, the opera gathers momentum gradually: The first act, with its exposition of character and situation, is a bit less focused musically; soon, however, one gorgeous moment follows another, as the powerfully moving score proceeds toward the justly praised canonic quintet at the conclusion. Like Antony and Cleopatra, the music is lushly orchestrated and richly interwoven with sensuous motifs that gradually take hold in one’s mind as familiarity with the work increases. (‘There is even some motivic overlap between the two operas.) 

The weakest aspect of Vanessa is Menotti’s Chekovian libretto — -specifically, its foolish characters and their ludicrously improbable predicament. The opera is set in “Vanessa’s country house in a northern country, the year about 19()5.”  In this baronial setting, the middle-aged Vanessa lives with her elderly mother, who bears some undisclosed grudge against her daughter, and Vanessa’s grown niece, Erika. Vanessa is awaiting the arrival of her true love Anatol, who has been absent for many years. When the guest finally arrives, it proves to be the son (also named Anatol) of the now deceased lover. Vanessa, vain and obsessively self-involved, simply transfers her abiding passion to the younger man. Anatol Jr., a charming but manipulative opportunist, leads both women on, seducing (and impregnating) Erika while courting Vanessa. Erika, though enamored of young Anatol, sees him for the shallow fraud he is and spurns his hollow promises. Subsequently, Vanessa and Anatol announce their engagement, and Erika runs out into the cold to abort her baby. Finally, Vanessa and Anatol leave together, while Erika stays behind, never revealing to her aunt her own involvement.

It is difficult to understand how Barber managed to conceive such magnificent music to portray the plight of such repellant people. One expects to encounter touches of irony that might suggest some sense of detachment or imply a commentary on the proceedings. Yet Barber’s music plays it straight and serious throughout. For example, “Outside this house the world has changed,” in which Anatol reveals the shabby superficiality of his character, is one of the opera’s most beautiful arias. One way of explaining this incongruity is by viewing the opera as “high camp,” wherein extravagant or improbable subject matter is treated from a totally serious perspective (e.g., Dracula).

Some may argue that Barber spreads an almost suffocating blanket of dark passion over Menotti’s slender melodrama. Others will find its heaviness absolutely appropriate for the subject. In any case, Vanessa is no dumber than a lot of Romantic works that have found their way into the repertory, and its great surges of melody head straight for the emotions of the audience. John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 1978.

This venerable performance is superb, the eminent soloists all at the top of their form. The sound quality is extraordinarily vivid and clear, with wide, 1950s-style stereo separation, and the text is fully audible. The accompanying booklet, with English libretto and a synopsis in four languages, is most helpfully organized.